Lance Hammer’s minimalist melodrama pushes William Faulkner into the 21st century or relocates Russell Banks from the Northeast to the Mississippi Delta. Yes, Ballast comes top-heavy with comparisons; they range from Robert Bresson to David Gordon Green. But the world Hammer records with a hand-held vérité style — one inhabited by enigmatic characters played by local non-actors, and seemingly cut off from history and current politics and events — possesses an oneiric identity of its own. Detailed, dense with atmosphere, unfolding at a dreamlike pace, it draws on universal experience, on mythic meaning. But one persistent question does trouble the film’s spell. Is it right for a white outsider to impose his æsthetics on a black community?
VIDEO: The trailer for Ballast
For most viewers, however, other questions will be more pressing. Like, who are these people? How are they related to one another? And what’s going on? In a scene that might have been taken from Affliction, a worried white neighbor (Johnny McPhail) visits the modest homestead next door. He recoils from the foul smell inside, and he gets no response from Lawrence (Micheal J. Smith Sr.), who’s sitting catatonic on a couch, after he discovers the body in the bedroom.
A suicide attempt, a long stretch in a hospital, and a parallel story about troubled 12-year-old James (JimMyron Ross) and his stressed-out single mom, Marlee (Tarra Riggs), subsequently unfold in an elliptical narrative, and it takes some effort to figure out how it all connects. The dead man is Darius, Lawrence’s twin brother; Marlee is Darius’s bitter and estranged wife, so James is Lawrence’s nephew. Pulling them together is the property left behind by Darius and the uncle’s grudging concern for wayward James, who has gotten himself in over his head with a gang of local crackheads. That and maybe some deeper, unspoken compulsions and repressed memories of past turmoil.
This underlying yearning and grief, more mood than emotion, overshadows the complicated plot, which never quite coalesces or resolves. The occasionally unintelligible dialogue contributes an air of secrecy to what’s going on. And the archetypal elements — the twins in particular — suggest an abstract interpretation. Is this a variation on Freud’s take on the Narcissus myth, in which Lawrence must purge himself of his immersion in his own self-image — twin Darius — in order to develop as a person and turn his energies outward to the world and to others?
Well, that might keep future film classes occupied for a while. That and Hammer’s use of space, time, and point of view: the first is stark and otherworldly, the second elastic and claustrophobic, the last aloof and omniscient. The invisible filmmaker encompasses all, an Olympian, off-screen presence like the Coen Brothers, except benign and without irony, who manipulates his characters with earnest sympathy in their melodrama of love, betrayal, addiction, and perseverance.
And unlike Coen Brothers creations, his characters retain their independence, their dignity, and their mystery. Credit the artless brilliance of the performances by the locals Hammer has cast and the painstaking respect and deference — reminiscent of James Agee’s ode to Depression-era sharecroppers Let Us Now Praise Famous Men — with which he regards them. He might not have the right to tell their story, but he works hard to earn it.