We all long for Eden. Sometimes we try to get back into the Garden (however that is conceived) and sometimes we burn it down all over again. The longing is such a perennial theme in art that we should consider whether it is innate. Among others, films like Leave No Trace, Captain Fantastic, The Wicker Man, Beasts of the Southern Wild, Hunt for the Wilderpeople, It Comes at Night, and the based-on-a-true-story Into the Wild all depict people longing for another time, another place, and a better way of living, often apart from the evil people “out there.” Rebecca Miller’s, The Ballad of Jack and Rose (2005; streaming on the Criterion Channel or for rent on Amazon Prime Video), is all of that and more, sounding the discordant notes of a symphony which no one seems to get quite right.
Jack (Daniel Day-Lewis) and his daughter, Rose (Camilla Belle), are living in the ruins of a ’60s commune (which sounds sort of like the beginning of a Walker Percy novel, if this were set in the South). This fact itself ought to serve as a warning, since they are the only two left of those who were originally there. Rose’s mother left at some point and has stopped sending even postcards. Rose is naive and “innocent,” though not because she wants to be. After Jack takes his shotgun to scare off construction workers in a new development on their island, there is a long scene showing the apparent idyll of Jack and Rose. They believe it to be an Eden of their own (re-)making.
Jack is doing his best to keep the rot of the outside world at bay. And there is rot. When they go to the mainland toward the end of the movie, Rose asks him why people build everything to be so ugly. It is, compared to their island home. Everything is identical in rows of strip malls and chain restaurants. The problem is the rot is not just outside. Jack is sick and knows he is dying. Rose has unexamined resentments and regrets. In their isolation and with the best of intentions, Jack has created a relationship that is, by turns, beautiful and destructively unhealthy. Rose’s stated desire to die when Jack dies is the expression of what needs to be severed if Rose is to live her own life.
In the form of Jack’s erstwhile lover, Kathleen (the always great Catherine Keener) and her sons move in with Jack and Rose. Whatever peace they thought they shared is destroyed. Rose aims at revenge, both with Kathleen’s sons and with a shotgun. There are enough hints throughout that Miller wants this to run parallel to the first three chapters of Genesis: a loss of innocence, an Edenic island, violence, and even a poisonous snake.
But this is not simply a metaphor. The film uses those images to ask us uncomfortable questions about intentions, relationships, and the outcomes we cannot have foreseen when we started out. We are bound to ourselves and others, intentionally and unintentionally, and it is miraculous anyone turns out even semi-sane in the end. At the climax of the film, Rose makes her decision about whether she is going to remain bound to the relationship her father forged or cut herself clean of at least what is unhealthy in their bond.
The ending is open to interpretation (personally, I would not have minded if it had ended one scene earlier). Is she recovering? Is she wounded so deeply she is now silent? Or is it simply the way in which everyone eventually grows up: to quote the band Black Eyed Sceva, “scarred but smarter.” Jack and Rose have their own unhealthy brand of relationship. While theirs is on display on a screen, we might want to ask ourselves where our own relationships go wrong. And supposing we can figure it out, is there any way to resolve the matter? More likely we will find, as Rose does, that we don’t have much say over the order, suit, or number of cards that we get dealt. We only get to play them the best we can.