He plays a Scots engineer named Jack, a straggly old hippy, who lives with his sheltered 16 year old daughter Rose (Belle) on a small island off the American east coast that was once the location of a thriving commune of proto-Greens. Bunked up in a ramshackle house, they live more or less alone, save the occasional visitor. Rose, whose unstructured home-schooling involves classes in cloud-appreciation and tree-house building, is nevertheless growing up quickly and, worryingly, is beginning to show signs of a personality disorder.
As is typical of Day-Lewis, we know from the look of him that he’s not well, long before we see him popping a few pills for his ailing heart and he shares the information that he is indeed dying and is worried about his daughter and the life he will leave behind for her. Devoted to the wetlands of the island, Jack is also fighting a losing battle with the materialistic property magnate Marty Rance (Beau Bridges) who threatens the ecosystem with a development of holiday homes. Into their intimate world, Jack invites his new girlfriend Kathleen (Catherine Keener) and her two teenage sons Rodney (Ryan McDonald), an overweight trainee-hairdresser and Thaddius, their spelling, a listless sneak (played by Paul Dano). The free-wheeling Rose feels betrayed and acts out, coming between Jack and Kathleen and manipulating the two teenage boys into risky situations that can only lead to disaster.
The film is beautifully photographed by Ellen Kuras, cutting from the narrative to quick shots taken from nature, a sky full of lightning, a swelling sea, black sap oozing from a tree branch. Later these flashes form into Jack’s memories of the way life used to be in commune, before his wife and everyone else moved away. This slow pulling into focus culminates in Rose projecting old 16mm family films for her new friends on the walls of their dusty ‘acid-pad’. It also brings forth a brooding row and a separation and a whole load of other drama, but because of Miller’s poetic touch in the telling and sensitively, sparsely scripted story, the film can explore the tumultuous emergence into womanhood of a remote, damaged girl with grace and sensitivity.
She also touches off themes of repressed violence and abandoned responsibility, culminating in suggestions of an incestuous relationship when it becomes clear that the closeness between Jack & Rose has become obsessive and dangerous. Her devotion to her father leads her to repeatedly declare her intention to kill herself when he dies, a promise that hangs over the film like a threatening cloud. Its heady stuff; composed primarily of contrasts and colours, with Miller showing her focus and empathy in her story of dreams turned sour and a dying light.
One potential drawback is the 1960s rock soundtrack, clearly designed to underline the waves of emotion falling from the screen through repeating the same song, “I Put A Spell On You”, as interpreted by different musicians. This kind of flourish, if it is a flourish, is entirely to your own taste but I found, as I almost always do when a pop soundtrack is used as a device, that it was something Miller should have trusted her talented cast to be able to express for themselves. It’s not intrusive, like Cameron Crowe’s jukebox, but it is unnecessarily emphatic, even for a film called The Ballad of…
The performances are all terrific. Fans of modern cinema acting will want to see it for Day-Lewis alone and they won’t be disappointed. He is brilliant as the cantankerous oddball, the loner who resorts to his chequebook when called upon to deal with people, the dreamer who comes to realise that the time has passed. With his gaunt face, he fills Miller’s close-up camera with rage and pain and an overwhelming tiredness but then there’s the flash of a cunning smile or a burst of energy and his character turns to show another contrasting facet. Opposite him, the young Camilla Belle more than holds her own, playing a difficult role with restrain and constancy, occasionally muted, typically fiery, all the way to a gut-wrenching finale that left me feeling drained and exhilarated at the same time.