“Down in the Delta, Hope Is a Stranger: 'Ballast'
By S. JAMES SNYDER | September 30, 2008
In most movies involving a suicide, the act unites people beneath the umbrella of mourning and reconciliation. This is not the case in the universe envisioned by Lance Hammer in his stark, sensational first feature, "Ballast," which begins a two-week engagement tomorrow at Film Forum. Clearly influenced by the raw, staccato style of the Dardenne brothers, who typically drop their audience into the middle of a story without the signposts of exposition, dialogue, or conventional plot structure, "Ballast" is a streamlined affair. More than just sparse in its vocabulary, though, the movie is also sullen in its tone. From the very first sequence, we sense a world of vast rifts and perpetual isolation, wave upon wave of loneliness punctuated by the occasional smile.
Mr. Hammer sets his sights on three somber souls enduring the brunt of winter in the Mississippi Delta. The opening shot hints at a world of hope and better days. A 12-year-old boy named James (JimMyron Ross) watches a flock of birds take flight, and (much as in the closing shot of this year's "Chop Shop") one will quickly come to regard those migratory animals as the lucky ones. They can flee, but James is trapped.
Cut to the interior of a house after a single gunshot. Lawrence (Micheal J. Smith Sr.) has been sitting for a while now with the body of his dead brother, set motionless in a chair as he stares into oblivion. A neighbor tries to console Lawrence as he calls the authorities. But before they can arrive, Lawrence gives in to his despair. He shoots himself in the chest and is rushed to the hospital where doctors patch up his lung. While his brother's body lies in the morgue, Lawrence listens to the doctors explain that he is going to be okay. No one visits him.
This may be the beginning of "Ballast," but it is hardly the start of the story. Slowly, the details emerge. Lawrence's brother had a child, James, whom he barely knew, with a woman, Marlee (Tarra Riggs), who so hated James's father that she took out a restraining order against him. After returning home from the hospital, Lawrence discovers that his brother left Marlee a letter awarding his property to her and James. Is this letter legally binding? Marlee is desperate to know, but she can't afford to ask an attorney.
In between her shifts cleaning bathrooms, Marlee doesn't have time to notice that James is spiraling out of control. In a stunning depiction of the way despair can instigate violence, as well as the way one generation passes its problems to the next, James has found the gun his father used to kill himself. He now uses it to threaten Lawrence, leveling the gun at his uncle (who seems like he would welcome a bullet) and demanding money so he can buy drugs. When Lawrence finally cuts off his nephew, James weighs turning the pistol on his drug dealers when they come to collect.
There are a few major twists to be found in "Ballast," including ancillary reasons for Lawrence's depression following his brother's death. But these hardly feel contrived. The bulk of "Ballast" unfolds without pretension, as Mr. Hammer films his characters bravely and dispassionately. He loves them enough to see them as they are, and entrusts the viewer to give them the same respect, taking the good with the bad.
Beyond his characters, Mr. Hammer crafts a world of silent, stretching horizons, bathed in blue, in a state of perpetual sadness. It is about as unsentimental a film as can be imagined, and while audiences are gradually filled in on how and why this family has splintered, we are immersed in the emotional reality of the situation long before we receive the day-to-day particulars.
Mr. Hammer has cast nonprofessional actors, and they speak in a tone and adopt a pacing that is wholly authentic. Unlike so many films about black communities that tend to feel exaggerated or plain offensive, "Ballast" is honest and respectful of its characters and the space they inhabit. They are in pain, struggling to stay afloat in a dark time, and the fact that this Sundance darling doesn't attempt to sell us on happily-ever-after is a bummer, but a beautifully believable one. One is never sure if better days lie ahead. Yet there is one glimmer of hope: The death of a family member has forced these three characters to look up toward one another with fresh eyes. It's given them the slightest reason to reach out, and maybe that's enough to set things right.
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