The only thing worse than selling out is desperately clinging to an illusion, which has the tendency to leave the foul odor of embarrassment. This has never been truer than with ex-hippies who, upon learning that the world simply rolled its eyes at communes and self-sufficient farms once Saigon fell, continued to act as if their noble experiment had relevance and social value. The dream was, of course, that a small group of idealists could protest the inequities of a racist, sexist, capitalist order and live out their lives in peace, justice, and free love. The reality, on the other hand, was that despite humanistic leanings, communities far removed from the hyper-competitive marketplace were just as likely to replicate the very perversions and difficulties they fought to escape. Put people in groups for any extended period of time and you’ll have jealousy, greed, and conflict. For all of its drawbacks, at least free market economics understands this vital truth about human nature, i.e. how much?. But for a time, the wild and the young sought to change the world, provided of course that they had enough money to keep employment concerns at bay.
Jack (Daniel Day-Lewis) is just such a man; self-righteous and by all appearances principled, but lucky enough to have inherited a great deal of money from his father’s business. It never ceases to amaze that those who claim to despise 9 to 5 living are the first to benefit from those who have no such dilemma. He lives in an earth house (one of the funnier chores we see listed: “mow roof”) on an isolated island off the coast of New England with his daughter Rose (Camilla Belle), a young girl who clearly idolizes her father, but for all the wrong reasons. As we meet them, Jack is dying (of course) and paradise is threatened by a developer (Marty, played by Beau Bridges) who, contrary to the rules of Hollywood, is actually quite reasonable. Jack continues to fight the tide of commerce by scaring away construction workers and bulldozing homes, but in the end, he’s quite aware that it’s a losing battle. But his instincts remain, even if his chest-thumping anti-materialism is a bit compromised by the presence of a gas-guzzling truck. Both father and daughter appear to have accepted Jack’s fate, and Rose makes several statements about her inevitable suicide once Jack expires. It is clear that Jack sees Rose as one of the last perfect things left in the world (he’s quick to anger when she expresses a desire to leave the vicinity), and she plays the role well of seeing no world beyond her father.
It is to writer/director Rebecca Miller’s credit that these people are not romanticized, for as the daughter of the late noted left-winger and Marilyn Monroe humper Arthur Miller, it would be easy for her to drool over the rebel or the common man. But she sees their plight so clearly, even if she might understand the impulse that started the commune in the first place. Not playing by the rules is a virtue to be sure, but not when it leads to a stifling of growth and frightened escape from the world. Sure, America is a pathetic, wheezing giant but one step from Christian tyranny, but it won’t be saved by wide-eyed secularists retreating to the mountains. As clichéd as it sounds, if you have a problem with the way things are going, you have to stick around and face up to the fight. Jack may no longer have any real reason to continue his fight (the rest of the commune disappeared long ago), but if it were just himself alone, there might be something pathetically inspiring about his one-man quest. He’d be pissing in the wind, but his eccentricity would be irresistible. But with a budding young woman at his side who has no real choice — she knows no other world — the situation is no longer revolutionary. She needs to start her own life and not be enslaved to her father’s long-dead dreams of personal glory.
Matters are complicated by the arrival of old flame Kathleen (no attempt is made to show where or when Jack met this woman, only that she exists) and her two sons, Thadius and Rodney. Both are less than thrilled by the idea of living away from the comforts of home (no TV!), but they long ago came to terms with their mother (played by Catherine Keener), a woman who is strangely attracted to men who need her. And how Jack needs, although he’d claim that he’s doing Rose a favor by having a female presence around the house. But we know that this is for and about Jack, for if anything can be said of rigid idealists, they are indeed a selfish lot. The two sons are stoner rejects, one of whom loves snakes and trashy local girls, while the other would rather cut Rose’s hair than take her virginity. They are natural and sufficiently bewildered, although we sense their growing exasperation.
Naturally, Rose is insanely jealous of Kathleen, even resorting to brandishing a shotgun in her presence and releasing a deadly snake in the house. Perhaps Rose is merely being protective in her own way, but I sense an erotic attachment that is only briefly (and regrettably) acted upon. And why not? Without much by way of socialization, wouldn’t an increasingly hormonal young person fall in love with the only man she’s ever really known? Even her offer of sex to Kathleen’s boy is less about attraction than the need to have someone other than her father take what she believes must be taken. Or is it her way of inspiring in her father the same jealously she felt after seeing him make love to Kathleen? In any case, they both need to get out more and their situation is a striking example of how dangerous it is to believe one’s parents are above criticism. Respect and admiration are unavoidable and even healthy, but hero-worship leads to a disillusionment that could, in the end, sever ties forever.
Much of what occurs as these characters dance toward the conclusion is expected, but not so predictable that we groan at the lack of inspiration. Miller wants us to see that a capacity for big dreams necessitates a similar capacity for crushing failure. Maturity and wisdom stem from recognizing these mistakes and charting a different course, which Jack equates with becoming “one of them.” And remember, Jack retains the option of selling his land for big money, which affords Rose opportunities not available to most of the world’s children. It is to her credit that she doesn’t completely balk at the idea of moving on. But men like Jack must die, of course, not solely because they are “too pure” for this world (that might be part of it, as this is the child of one of America’s foremost champions of the outsider), but also, sadly, because they are no longer of any value. The ideals — good and bad, heroic and naïve — of the 1960s are as dead as Jack’s flaming corpse, which might not be so bad had we designed something reasonable in their place. Instead, we’ve abandoned even the possibility of enlightenment and cooperation and now believe that as creatures of habit, we are duty-bound and hard-wired to consume, take, exploit, and manipulate and always damage, damage, damage. We might not like what the revolution did to the likes of Jack, but at least there was a revolution to be had. Now, we’d rather not be bothered at all.