American Fable is ambitious, maybe too much so sometimes, but there's an intense pleasure in the boldness of the film's style.
"The Ballad of Jack & Rose" is the last sad song of 1960s flower power. On an island off the East Coast a craggy middle-age hippie and his teenage daughter live alone in the remains of a commune. A generator is powered by wind. There is no television. Seaweed fertilizes the garden. They read. He home-schools her. They divide up the tasks. When Rose looks at Jack, her eyes glow with worship, and there is something wrong about that. When they lie side by side on the turf roof of their cottage, finding cloud patterns in the sky, they could be lovers. She is at an age when her hormones vibrate around men, and there is only one in her life.
Rebecca Miller's film is not about incest, but it is about incestuous feelings, and about the father's efforts, almost too late, to veer away from danger. Jack (Daniel Day-Lewis) is a fierce idealist who occasionally visits the other side of the island to fire shotgun blasts over the heads of workers building a housing development. Rose (Camilla Belle) admires him as her hero. "If you die, then I'm going to die," she tells him. "If you die," he says, "there will have been no point to my living."
This is not an academic discussion. He's had a heart attack, and he may die. She regularly takes away his home-rolled cigarettes, but out of her sight he's a chain-smoker, painfully thin, his idealistic serenity sometimes revealing a fierce anger just below the surface. He hates the developer (Beau Bridges) who is building the new homes on what Jack believes are wetlands: "That's not a house. It's a thing to keep the TV dry," he says, and "They all want to live in places with people exactly like themselves, and have private police forces to keep their greedy little children safe."
Jack is being forced to think about the future. His daughter, he finally realizes, is too fixated on him. He visits the mainland, where for six months he has been dating Kathleen (Catherine Keener). He asks her to move with her two teenage boys out to the island and live with them: "It will be an experiment." Because he has a trust fund, he can write her a handsome check to make the move more practical. Kathleen, who lives at home with her mother, needs the money and is realistic about that while at the same time genuinely liking Jack. But how much does she know about him? She has never been to the island.