Ballast

"Excellent"

Ballast Review


Set well below the poverty line in rural Mississippi, writer-director-editor Lance Hammer's Ballast is the first film in some time that has attempted to bring Bressonian singularity and emotional depth to the American independent picture. A bona fide critic's darling at this year's Sundance Film Festival, Hammer's metaphysical southern drama came away, rightly, with both the award for best direction and best cinematography. That it lost the dramatic competition to the mediocre micro-indie Frozen River comes as little surprise considering the fest's history.

It begins with an attempted double suicide as Lawrence (Michael J. Smith Sr.) walks into his bedroom to find his twin brother, Darius, dead from a self-inflicted overdose and decides to follow suit with a gunshot to his chest. An unexpected recovery doesn't brighten his disposition, nor does his sister-in-law Marlee (Tara Riggs) and nephew James (JimMyron Ross). This triptych of lost souls wander empty farms and side roads and settle in their ramshackle homes, finding little reason past a dreary climate for Darius' decision. Their only refuge comes in the form of restoring an abandoned gas mart that once belonged to Lawrence and Darius.

Inflected with similar tone and imagery as the Dardenne brothers, Belgium's high laureates of Bressonian mischief, Hammer uses non-professional actors and coaxes out quiet, natural performances, especially from the hulking Smith who borders on catatonic. He has some very engaging interplay with the equally-mum Ross, whose character begins on a note of crime as he attempts to rip off a local pack of hoodlums and then rob his uncle of his scant possessions. Marlee, the lone feminine presence, causes commotion like she was paid up-front but Riggs, a visceral presence, keeps her grounded in urgency rather than melodrama.

It's the absence of music and clamor that makes Ballast such a nuanced work. The opening image is stupendous: James in his parka running towards a flock of geese, scattering them into the ash-grey sky before settling on a static shot of James. Increasingly mobile, Hammer's use of handheld cameras juxtaposes with his dilatory cast, suggesting inner bedlam to match a stoic veneer. With the exceptions of Marlee's outbursts, however, the film keeps things at a low hum, nestling deep into its rainy, mud-strewn purgatory.

Hammer's film is not without its faults: certain scenes run aimlessly, and the saving grace of the gas mart comes rather abruptly. Nevertheless, Ballast overcomes, bathed in natural light framed eloquently by cinematographer Lol Crowley in widescreen 35mm.

Whereas Frozen River was picked up by the accountably audacious Sony Pictures Classics, Ballast emerged both from Sundance and New York's New Directors/New Films series with a bevy of admirers and no distribution. Taking a note from David Lynch, Hammer decided to self-distribute, sending the film to several key art-house theaters (namely New York's Film Forum). It's a move that may be remembered not for its acumen but its balls. That said, in a film climate that allows banalities the likes of Meet Bill and The Babysitters to get backing, perhaps DIY is the radical action needed. Is this some sort of Marxist overhaul of studio protocol? Indie or death!

It's Gore-Tex.



Facts and Figures

Run time: 96 mins

In Theaters: Saturday 19th January 2008

Distributed by: Alluvial Film Company

Reviews

Contactmusic.com: 4 / 5

Rotten Tomatoes: 92%
Fresh: 68 Rotten: 6

IMDB: 7.0 / 10

Cast & Crew

Director: Lance Hammer

Producer: Lance Hammer, Nina Parikh

Starring: Isa Hoes as Ellen, Kees Boot as Thierry, Teuntje Post as Chloe, Bert Hana as David, Raymonde de Kuyper as Marga, Birgit Schuurman as Anouk

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