Monday, February 14, 2011

Discordant 'Ballad'

The Ballad of Jack & Rose marks the end of the road in a Daniel Day-Lewis sextet of movies -- and the closing of the frontier in his version of American history

The following is the final post about Daniel Day-Lewis in a larger project about Hollywood actors as historians. Comments welcome on Facebook or

To date, Daniel Day-Lewis has not made a movie about the Great Depression. Or World War II. Or the Eisenhower era of the 1950s. There may be any number of reasons for that, and he may yet make a movie about one of those moments in American history. But I’m willing to bet that he’s passed on an opportunity to do so, because that’s what real movie stars do with their power: say no. Sculpting a career by choosing roles is what turns actors into movie stars.
Day-Lewis has not made a movie about the sixties, either (or a movie about the United States in the 1960s, anyway; in his most recent film, Nine, he plays an Italian film director modeled on Federico Fellini). But the legacy of the sixties – the counterculture, anyway; he’s had little to show in the way of Civil Rights, for instance – shadows the final character in his gallery, Jack Slavin, in his 2005 movie The Ballad of Jack & Rose, which is actually set in 1986. It’s not a pretty picture, in large measure because it shows us a frontier that is not only closed, but barren. 
As with The Crucible, this was a family enterprise. The Ballad of Jack & Rose was written and directed by Rebecca Miller, Arthur’s daughter. Day-Lewis was first offered the part before he met Miller, and turned it down. As a career move, I would say that changing his mind was a mistake: this is not a very good movie (perhaps not entirely coincidentally, it’s also the only one of Day-Lewis’s American sextology that isn’t based on a pre-existing source like a play or novel). But it is nevertheless a revealing one when juxtaposed against the rest of his work, and one that allows us to begin bringing the story of this chapter to a close.
One reason why is a piece of subtitled information we get at the start of the movie as to its setting: “an island off the east coast of the United States.”  (That I always think of it as an island off the coast of Maine may reflect the fact that the film was shot on Prince Edward Island.) Manhattan is also an island, and Bill the Butcher, like Day-Lewis’s character here, is fighting off the encroachments of the outside world (in this case a real estate developer played by Beau Bridges). But the house in which Slavin has virtually barricaded himself is essentially the opposite of a frontier. It’s a collapsing preserve. And it’s collapsing around its protagonist, who’s afflicted with a vague illness that we understand is not yet crippling but will be fatal.
Slavin is the quintessential environmentalist who loves trees and hates people. A Scottish immigrant who came to United States and became a citizen – “I fell in love with this country, or what I thought it was going to be come,” he explains at one point – using a family inheritance to buy a compound that was once a countercultural compound. But now, in the aftermath of his wife’s death, the homestead is inhabited only by himself and his teenage teenaged daughter, Rose (Camilla Belle), with whom he has a relationship that is dangerously close to incestuous.
In apparent recognition of his literal and figurative unhealthiness, Slavin invites what has been a casual girlfriend from the mainland (Catherine Keener) and her two sons Rodney and Thaddius (Ryan McDonald and Paul Dano, with whom Day-Lewis would team up again with There Will Be Blood) to come live with them. This proves to be a poor arrangement, because Rose resents Catherine and seeks revenge by throwing herself at the boys, one of whom (McDonald) is apparently gay and the other (Dano) is an exploitative lout. Slavin is progressively more enraged by Thaddius, and Rose convinces him to dump Catherine.  “I wish it could be just us like it was before,” she tells him after running away and hiding in one of the developer’s houses. “The happiest man in the whole world.”
Yet the very imbalance of this sentiment suggests the instability of their relationship, in which Rose repeatedly says that she plans to commit suicide once he dies.  Slavin literally buys off Catherine, and then provokes a confrontation with Bridges by destroying the McMansion in which he and Rose have spent a night waiting for her to clear out of his home. But when his growing emotional volatility swings toward resignation, the developer, whether out of compassion or caginess, refuses to exploit Slavin’s sudden willingess to be bought out himself. (The lack of clarity as to what we’re to make of this decency on the part of the ostensible bad guy, and the truly distasteful behavior of Slavin, is one source of the movie’s dissatisfying ambiguity.) In the end, Slavin dies a relatively tidy death, and Rose – to whom this story really belongs – turns their home into a funeral pyre. We see her in an epilogue two years later on a Vermont collective. In effect we’ve come full circle, back to the edge – the far western edge – of Puritan New England. The frontier has become a garden.

Coming next: a series of posts about Denzel Washington.