In the Bleak Midwinter
By Michael Koresky
Dir. Lance Hammer, U.S., self-distributed
It’s sometimes necessary to discuss a movie without reducing it to a category. Unfortunately, that’s not what critics often do. A film like Lance Hammer’s Ballast deserves to be considered on its own terms, rather than compartmentalized and defined in relation to concurrent film movements. To simply talk about the aesthetics and storytelling approach of Ballast by comparing it to the work of the Dardenne brothers or perhaps the American independent strategies of early David Gordon Green (both of which dredge up even more film historical categories, respectively neorealism and a Malickian brand of poetic naturalism) is an easy out, and not that different from reducing it to labels like “Southern” or “black.” The critical tendency to see a film only in terms of its brethren becomes increasingly tiresome and often denies both the emotional specifics that go into a film’s character creation and the likely intentions of the filmmaker, not to mention raises questions of what’s relevant to audiences outside of cinephilic circles. To only play the compare and contrast game is an easy out from wrestling with the film at hand, and Ballast is a film worth wrestling with.
After initially noticing those technical touches that an avid film watcher might deem as “borrowed from” or “indebted to” other works (yes, a Dardenne-esque over-the-shoulder opening shot; sure, a Malickian focus on birds, trees, expanses of sky captured with natural light), I soon settled into a narrative I felt I hadn’t seen before at all. To those who would care to compare Ballast’s trajectory of hard-won, if barely perceptible, redemption as particularly reminiscent of Rosetta or The Son, I would argue that the specifics of this film’s milieu and its characters’ incremental sense of self-awareness and betterment feel wholly its own, not to mention entirely American. And the David Gordon Green comparison is utterly specious: Ballast is not burdened with the sort of voiceover-heavy poetic mythologizing that made George Washington ultimately rather precious, and in retrospect of Green’s career, perhaps disingenuous—all that links the films is the race of the characters. Ballast has a tender approach to character that is certainly poetic, but it’s never mechanistic. Hammer’s characters are taciturn (Michael J. Smith’s store-owner Lawrence), frustrated and animated (Tarra Riggs’s single mom Marlee), and youthfully erratic (Marlee’s 12-year-old son James, played by JimMyron Ross) in ways that always feel true to their given situation; Ballast’s only structuring “device” seems to be its filmmaker’s compassion.
Bathed in a constant blue-tinged sunlight, Ballast takes place in a Mississippi Delta town in the winter, where the frosty ground always crunches beneath the characters’ feet and breath seems to constantly hover, visibly, in the air. The unspecified town doesn’t appear to be well inhabited, but Hammer isn’t aiming to depict a community per se. Though Hammer shows outside forces that mean to tear apart the three people at its center, Ballast is a largely interior portrait. It’s about moving on from trauma and self-imposed isolation, but never in a simplified, quick-fix, self-help manner. The triumphs are minute, the fears and pleasures rational, all of which are delicately performed with lovely expressivity by Hammer’s stunning trio of non-actors. As Lawrence, introduced wordlessly mourning the suicide of his twin brother, Darius, with whom he worked at a convenience store and lived in a modest one-floor house, Smith is like a bearing wall that’s been slammed against too many times, still stoic but ready to crumble. Though his kind, neighbor, played by Johnny McPhail, tries to lend a helping hand following his tragic loss, mostly by taking care of his dog and inviting him to dinner, Lawrence is an island adrift, and we barely know him before he attempts to kill himself with a gunshot to the torso. Already, Hammer’s restrained but nonetheless powerfully evocative visual sense impresses: there are moments of lyricism even in this violence, but they’re never emphasized or underlined with self-congratulation—the sparkling Christmas lights reflected in the hospital window as a nurse silently changes Lawrence’s bandages, the azure glow of bleak day seeping in through the narrow cracks of open doors.
Hammer (whose name is alarmingly inappropriate considering how subtly he wields his technique) undoubtedly frames the world with a specific set of aesthetics, but he always manages to make his images spring forth from a palpable, recognizable world, one long burdened by largely unarticulated, entrenched, socioeconomic struggle. The parallel narrative of Marlee and James is the more outwardly, even conventionally dramatic arc (prepubescent James has been using his mother’s money to buy drugs from dangerous, older local pushers), and to Hammer’s great credit, he never obscures the harsh realities of their situation with poetic abstraction. In fact, there’s a refreshing transparency to the way Marlee deals with her problems, and Riggs plays her with a charisma and lucidity that should put to rest any accusations of Hammer’s supposed “distancing” from his characters. Forthrightly emotional or steely and closed-off when she needs to be, Riggs makes Marlee into the film’s anchor, as necessary for us as she is for Ross’s tight-lipped James. Basically a good kid mixed up in a bad crowd, James is hardly an addict, just momentarily misguided, which is why criticism of the film for not dealing with James’s “drug problem” isn’t entirely valid.
He’s also the catalyst for the film’s ultimate reconciliation, which concerns Lawrence and Marlee more than it does the child. As we eventually discover, they are tethered together through mutual resentment and past grudges: Darius was James’s layabout father, never present for his son, so Marlee, naturally distrustful of her deadbeat ex’s brother, wants to keep James as far away from Lawrence’s influence as possible. This is made more problematic when Marlee and James retreat to Lawrence’s property to hide out from the drug dealers after an intense roadside confrontation (a well-directed and suspenseful sequence that brings the threat of outside forces into cold, clear relief).
What’s remarkable is how immediate Hammer makes all this feel: one could choose to call the redemptions and emotional re-emergences that comprise the final third of Ballast calculated, but to just say that and move on is a willful ignoring of the unforced, meditative quality of the narrative’s unfolding, and the rich, complicated interplay between the characters that makes every scene a surprise and a pleasure to watch—especially memorable is a moment at the kitchen sink between Smith and Riggs that moves from tender interaction to crushing rejection in the blink of an eye, but which nevertheless carries with it the possibility of change. It’s this promise—of living without emotional paralysis despite financial struggle and loss—that makes Ballast such a wondrous, moving experience, and which Hammer details in a final shot so subtle and revelatory and yet so specifically attuned to these people’s daily experiences that it nearly doesn’t feel like a revelation at all.