"Ballast": The Weight By Adam Nayman

in 10th Buenos Aires International Festival of Independent Cinema

by Adam Nayman

Whether or not Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne will eventually be regarded as pantheon directors on the order of their hero Robert Bresson is a question for another, later date (two Palmes d’Or suggest they will, but then Emir Kusturica boasts a similar resume) but their shadow already looms long over contemporary cinema. Any new work that places impoverished characters within a hardscrabble aesthetic space is inevitably compared to the Belgian brothers’ output, and the steady proliferation of such films on the festival circuit — from Chop Shop to Little Moth (Xue Chan) — confirms the pervasiveness of their influence.

Lance Hammer’s debut feature Ballast is a stark, greyed-out drama featuring predominantly African-American characters set in the Mississippi Delta; the milieu is half a world removed from Seraing, but when the film premiered at Sundance, critics couldn’t help but invoke the Dardennes, and rightly so. The stylistic similarities are unmistakable: Mobile camerawork that feels tethered to the protagonists’ movements; the determined use of offscreen space (and sound); a marked absence of non-diegetic music; highly physicalized performances. But the highest compliment that I can pay Hammer’s debut is to say that its unhurried, elliptical narrative gradually accumulates a moral force comparable to the Dardennes’ high masterpiece The Son (Le Fils, 2002).

That film, of course, was about a man, Olivier (Olivier Gourmet) who, through an act of staggering will attempts to offset the senseless loss of one life by saving another. After unexpectedly finding himself in charge of the teenaged boy who had killed his own son, he pushes beyond vengeance — and even forgiveness — towards something audacious indeed: Instruction. By taking responsibility for the person who has caused his suffering — teaching him a trade and imparting an (admittedly ascetic) design for living — Olivier comes as close as humanly possible to filling two yawning voids. The film ends on a note of double catharsis made all the more powerful by its open-endedness.

Ballast concludes with similar optimism, and as in The Son, the grace note is earned by the intensity of what has preceded it. Following the drug-related death of his identical twin brother Darius (and his own subsequent suicide attempt), DJ-turned-convenience-store-manager Lawrence (the towering Micheal J.Smith, Sr.) must confront both his own debilitating grief and the active resentment of Darius’ estranged wife Marlee (Tarra Riggs) and 12-year old son James (Jim Myron Ross). At the film’s outset, Lawrence seems incapable of helping anybody, much less himself — he’s introduced in a catatonic state, and he doesn’t speak a word of dialogue for several scenes even after he recovers from his self-inflected gunshot wound. As Ballast progresses, however, he emerges from his shellshock and inveigles himself into Marlee and James’ affairs. (James’ involvement with some juvenile drug dealers has compromised their already-tenuous home life; they end up moving into a second house on Lawrence’s property.)

It’s as if Lawrence were attempting to suture the once-imperceptible but now bottomless gap between himself and his late twin by stepping — tentatively but deliberately — into the wreckage of his life. Like Olivier in The Son, his motives are at once impeccable and tinged with peril; as in The Son, Hammer places the onus of interpretation on the audience, keeping dialogue and expository details to a minimum. Marlee, who cites Lawrence’s possessiveness of Darius as a major factor in the dissolution of her marriage, strains against reconciliation. James — who has been brought up to know very little about his father — goes to extremes to take out his aggression: He breaks into his uncle’s house and demands money from him at gunpoint — using the same gun with which Lawrence had shot himself. James’ rage is subordinate to his curiosity, however, and his need to know something about his father leads to more civil interactions. These scenes, in which a confused boy confronts the physical duplicate of the father he had never known, are extremely moving but also worrisome. If Lawrence and Darius’ lives were compromised by the blurring of personal lines, then this act of transference carries the potential for disaster.

Uneasiness suffuses every frame of Ballast, which is a work of unique and sustained tension. The suspense obviously derives from the troubled relationships of the characters, but there is a welcome sense that the plot is developing in accordance with their actions, rather than being pasted over top of them (another point of convergence with the Dardennes). There is also tension in the landscape: the Bunuelian saw about the link between specificity and universality is in evidence here. Films about economically disadvantaged people in the American South are nothing new, but where Ballast differs from a superficially similar film like David Gordon Green’s George Washington — another title oft-cited in Sundance dispatches — is in its studied (and refreshing) lack of lyricism. Hammer does not strain towards the cliché of the beauty of desolation. This is not to say that there aren’t arresting shots — the opening image of a flock of birds in flight is thrillingly oblique; a key conversation takes place with the speakers out of focus over a third party’s shoulder, compounding his remove from the discussion — but the camera is rarely still long enough for us to register beauty, and the landscape is always seen oppressively. The wizened horizontal lines and frightening openness (there is nowhere to hide here) weigh as heavily on Lawrence, Marlee and James, exterior space exacerbating interior dilemmas.

It’s an environment that seems barely conducive to survival — like the Dardennes’ Seraing — but in this film, mere survival doesn’t cut it: there must be a fight towards something more. Lawrence’s overtures — he offers to make Marlee a partner in the convenience store, to split profits, to home-school James, to be present in their lives — have a deeply selfish aspect, but he’s fumbling towards the best of all outcomes: A mutual rescue. We hope that Marlee and James will be able to meet him halfway, just as we hope late in The Son that the magnitude of Olivier’s gesture will be recognized and accepted despite the very real terror it engenders for both parties. The title of Ballast refers to a weight taken on by ships to stay upright which is dumped once the boat reaches port; that one can read Hammer’s remarkable debut as being as much about the need to take on weight as the need to discard it speaks to its finely wrought and altogether remarkable balance.