What do you say about a filmmaker who garners beautifully rendered performances from her actors despite a pretentious and muddled script? It takes real talent to assemble a first-rate cast that can deliver the goods, but without a solid backbone of story their efforts are wasted.
With three films under her belt, the verdict is still out on director Rebecca Miller (Personal Velocity, Angela), daughter of famous playwright Arthur Miller. This latest picture is an intensely personal drama that mixes heavy-handed metaphor with moments of true beauty and sorrow.
It’s 1986, and Jack Slavin (Daniel Day-Lewis), an idealistic conservationist, lives with his 16-year-old daughter Rose (Camilla Belle) as the last members of a hippie commune. Having sheltered Rose from the outside world, the two have forged a powerfully intimate relationship that hovers dangerously close to incest. Jack, however, is dying. Fearful that his daughter will be abandoned in the big bad world, he invites his girlfriend Kathleen (Catherine Keener) and her reluctant teenage sons — the anti-social scuzzball Thadius (Paul Dano), and aspiring hairdresser Rodney (Ryan McDonald) — to come live with them.
Needless to say, things don’t work out well. Feeling betrayed, Rose acts out, both sexually and homicidally, in an attempt to regain her father’s exclusive attention. The self-sustaining Garden of Eden that Jack has so carefully constructed quickly unravels, forcing him to confront his own selfishness and egotism.
Miller presents some interesting and worthwhile ideas about misguided idealism and emotional separation, only to undermine them with clunky metaphors and an overly contrived plot. Characters wander in and out of the story without purpose, and the narrative doesn’t so much build as meander from one scene to the next. The dialogue can be amusingly insightful, but the labored and obvious symbolism — Rose unceremoniously loses her virginity while a poisonous snake coils beneath the bed — plays like film school allegory.
Miller still has much to learn about effective framing and composition. Her camera lingers far too close to her actors, denying us the proper perspective. Luckily, she has cinematographer Ellen Kuras, who delivers the burnished sheen of a fading summer. Jack’s dilapidated commune bursts with so much untamed beauty that we can’t help but sympathize with his love of the wild.
There are a few things to admire; the cast is uniformly excellent, detaching themselves from the film’s precious imagery to turn in delicately shaded performances. A delightfully awkward moment between Rose, hoping to be deflowered, and an alarmed Rodney is so genuine that one wishes Miller would lighten the metaphorical load and refocus her story.
Daniel Day-Lewis, in particular, is remarkably authentic as the hopelessly earnest and deeply flawed Jack. Despite his character’s inscrutability and standoffishness, Lewis commands every scene he’s in, giving us fleeting glimpses of Jack’s inner landscape and, more surprisingly, earning our affection.
It’s clear that Miller takes her inspiration from The Tempest, and she deserves praise for her complex characters and ambitious ideas. Unfortunately, as Shakespeare knew all too well, a good story requires a solid dramatic core, and Miller could learn a thing or two from the Bard — or perhaps her own father.
Showing at the Maple Art Theatre (4135 W. Maple Rd., Bloomfield Hills; 248-263-2111).
Jeff Meyers writes about film for MetroTimes. Send comments to [email protected].