Reviewed in October 2008
Top Ten List: #10 of 2008 (U.S. releases)
Director: Lance Hammer. Cast: JimMyron Ross, Micheal J. Smith Sr., Tarra Riggs, Johnny McPhail. Screenplay: Lance Hammer.

Photo © 2008 Strand Releasing/Alluvial Film Company
Lance Hammer's Ballast is a doleful movie that often has a lump in its throat, but it's also a poetic and illuminating movie that earns its attitudes and effects, including the lumps. Hammer is working from some of the same timbres of inspiration that David Gordon Green has been drawing upon for his sober and beautiful regional almanacs like George Washington and the recent Snow Angels, and like Green's movies, Ballast must continually resist a tendency to make frozen, almost statuary art out of its own narrative diffusion and introverted characters. There's also a lingering threat of building an easy bridge between the damp, blue-grey landscape that the characters inhabit—blue-grey in no small measure because Hammer and his cinematographer Lol Crawley keep resorting to those glaciating lens filters—and the emotional lives of the characters themselves. Nature is hardly more satisfying than anatomy as a placeholder for destiny, but the way Hammer films the slate-colored plank of the sky or the brown pools of water lying asleep in low, furrowed farmland sometimes implies that life in this world is innately despondent. The occasional implication is that you couldn't possibly inhabit the two small, single-storey houses that serve as the focal points for Ballast's elliptical narrative—one with lapis-colored aluminum siding, the other key-lime, the daylight hitting both of them with dull, wet thuds—and concoct a life that is anything but a bracelet of hard defeats, dignified resilience, and stowed-up longing.

But mood and palette are only part of the art that Hammer and Crawley bring to this feature, and if they sometimes seem a little one-dimensionally mournful, the camera's attention is remarkably concerted, even warm, and the commitment to shallow depths of field and tight telephoto lensing keep us gorgeously attuned to the characters, their modulated expressions, their pauses, their treasured and even their untreasured objects, their dynamic interactions with their environment and with each other. Forsaking the kind of heroic rural poetry of a George Washington or an All the Real Girls, Ballast opts instead for a more thoroughly invested and compassionate sense of character. Hammer doesn't weigh down his dialogue with the kinds of flaky verbal equivalents for his ostentatiously "lyrical" images that Green favored in his earliest pictures, and while there's nothing necessarily corrupt about that approach, Ballast yields a more persuasive slice-of-life drama, emotionally hot if stylistically cool. The newer film rings with a more credible sense that the characters are unfolding consistently, even amid major reversals and crises, and that their thoughts are subtly evolving from scene to scene (where Green will sometimes forsake that consistency in favor of his majestic compositions and his Wordsworthian dawdling). When Ballast opens, a neighbor drops in on a man named Lawrence (Micheal J. Smith, Sr.) who hasn't appeared outside his home in several days. Lawrence's posture and silence are so autistic that the neighbor has to perform his own search around the house to discover the dead body of Lawrence's brother in one of the bedrooms; while he's calling the police, Lawrence walks outside to a shed that's even smaller than his house and, as communicated by a low and dew-dampened sound effect, shoots himself in the gut. Hammer doesn't build a narrative mystery out of this; the next shot does not come adorned with a caption that says "Three weeks earlier." The mysteries are psychological and social, but they are also human-sized and implicit, not least because we aren't given the immediate tools to decipher what Lawrence and his brother have to do with a young boy named James (JimMyron Ross) who also seems to be a neighbor, and who intrudes into Lawrence's living room day after day and holds him up at gunpoint, for payoffs as slim as $9 in cash. We also meet James's mother Marlee (Tarra Riggs), a descendent of Kaycee Moore's lonely, severe-looking wife in Killer of Sheep, though the fires banked inside Marlee have more to do with specific, personal mourning than the kind of broad social grief that Charles Burnett crystallized in Moore.

Our grasp of each character, including the deceased man, congeals only slowly and through a fragile blend of dramatic exposition, diaphanous implication, and suggestive impressions of climate, temperature, rhythm, color, and space. Ballast sometimes feels like a McCabe & Mrs. Miller without any background characters: an oxymoron in many ways, but one way of getting at the pearly obliquity and confident minimalism with which the filmmakers work toward their special, whispered purposes. When Marlee and Lawrence eventually start airing some direct and sharp-edged grievances—particularly one evening when Marlee storms over to Lawrence's house, after James has asked her a discomfiting question about his father—the entire mode of the film and its storytelling are shivered. Hammer and his gifted actors, particularly the potent but unhistrionic Tarra Riggs, have taken such persistent and sure-footed stands against direct presentation that the moments of overt meta-commentary feel a little suspect, no matter how much we hunger to know more about who we're spending time with and with what, exactly, they are so preoccupied.

Hammer gives a different but comparable jolt to the film's prevailing poetics with an early sequence when James and Marlee are abruptly threatened in their car by some miscreants with a vendetta against young James. Here, too, Ballast seems to concede that it needs a little more candor, a little more action if it's going to work as drama. Then again, as deftly as Hammer handles the intensity of feeling between Marlee and Lawrence during their backyard verbal joust, so too does he show craft and economy in his pacing and framing of danger in the driving scene, and so we start to trust the movie no matter what it's doing. Formal context helps: even when the general drift of Ballast is slow or quiet, as it increasingly is during the second half, the actual edits are always a roomy combination of the quick and the delayed, and the camerawork oscillates regularly between handheld bobs, static long shots or close-ups, and quick pans between actors. It's a credit to Hammer (who also served as editor) that he can contrive and modulate several apparent tempos without ever settling down into one stylistic groove, and an even bigger asset to the film that, with so many tricks so coolly up its sleeve, it never feels incongruous with itself even when the action markedly slows or accelerates, or even when it seems just a shade too depressed for its own greater good. Ballast has conviction and craft, not just tact and compassion. By using the former to give heft and detail to the latter, Ballast accomplishes the neat feat of dissolving from a first act driven largely by risk, suspense, and violence into a second and third act built on what I'd call mundane incidents and real-time living. The trick impresses because we care so much for the characters and also for the movie, which has drifted into an under-explored locale and sidled up to some characters otherwise invisible on the landscape of current movies. Several stock scenes are given small tweaks that amount to major shifts: when the cash-strapped mother is begged for basketball lessons by her inevitably self-absorbed child, she doesn't sigh or protest but figures out how to make it work. When Lawrence is gurneyed from an ambulance into a hospital room, the actors playing the doctors don't react with standard rat-a-tat precision but stutter occasionally amid their flurry of acronyms and decimals. Scarlet accents like Marlee's red car, Lawrence's digital alarm clock, or James's ballpoint drawing of a jack of hearts invite poetic contemplation simply because red has been so rigorously suppressed from most of the film.

All of which, I hope, testifies to the movie's strengths, its readily forgivable flaws, and its signs of real promise, without ever mentioning that the setting of the action is the Mississippi Delta, and without making needless hay of the fact that Lance Hammer, a white filmmaker, has made this impressive, probing film about three African-American protagonists. Ballast's publicity, to whatever extent it receives any, will almost surely be driven by these two factors, and they're hardly incidental to what is interesting, central, and true about the movie. But even less so do they tell the full story or furnish the seminal signs of the film's uniqueness. Lacking a fully developed connoisseurship of American dialects, verbal and topographical, I was unsure for quite a while where Ballast was unfolding, even as the fond attention to natural detail and the idiomatic pronunciations ("Shooch" for "Shoot you," "Give it toom" for "Give it to me") conveyed a strong sense of regional specificity; then again, like the local idiosyncrasies of The Bicycle Thief or Nashville or Daughters of the Dust or Gummo, the particularities of Ballast feel so emotionally rewarding and so indispensable to evoking character that they actually give the movie broader appeal and a more intense claim on our interest. And if the film's silences and truncated storylines sometimes bespeak Hammer's inability to dissect more completely a part of the country that he doesn't know in his own bones, Ballast comes much closer to the respectful, observant detail of a Maria Full of Grace than to the hackneyed or lachrymose banalities that well-intended and usually white filmmakers often make about counties or countries or communities to which they are outsider-observers. Go see Ballast, then, if you're interested in landscape films or in Southern dramas or in largely black-cast films or in profiles of adolescence or in case histories of fraternal mourning or in rare screen stories about that caste within the so-called rural poor who are property owners and business managers, not the indigents in sagging or sighing houses that we see on the news and in most documentaries. But more than that, go see Ballast if you're interested in strong dramas, or in the flexibility and curiosity of human compassion, or in visual choices that convey meaning and theme as well as emotion, or in American movies that re-draw America along new and affecting lines. B+

Sundance Film Festival: Best Director (Drama); Best Cinematography (Lol Crawley)

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