I saw the movie Ballast, filmmaker Lance Hammer’s first feature film, at the Independent Film Festival in Boston back in April. I knew nothing about the film, it just sounded interesting from the description. The film is concentrated on three characters who live in the Mississippi Delta. I have never visited the area. The camera lingers and slowly moves and it shows the vastness of the sky and the flatness of the land. The beginning was slow, but I found it essential in order to absorb the geography of the place. You could feel the cold, you could feel the warm. And then there were the actors, speaking in low voices, sometimes it was difficult to understand. But these were local non-actors.
I could see how someone would prefer a voice over for this movie, explaining this and that. But that was the brilliance of this film: it showed what was going on and you were drawing your own conclusions as you were being absorbed by the scenery and the story. The cinematography was visually impressive. Later during the Q&A Hammer mentioned that he shot the movie in Super 35. And it was brilliant.
The movie starts with a suicide and then the dead man’s twin brother, ex-wife and son are getting involved trying to get on with life after the suicide. There is struggle, disagreement, there is difficulty and poverty, there is utter sadness. The Delta feels like another country altogether. The performances were moving. You could feel the tension in the silences, the pain in the way a word was uttered, in the way the people were moving. The pain, the drag, the disappointment, it was all there front of us, bear.
Hammer is white and was inspired by the place in the last 10 years that he’d been visiting the area. There has been some criticism against him based on the assumption that a white man cannot tell the story of some black people living in the Delta. I totally disagree and the truth is that watching the movie you do not know if it was shot by a white or a black filmmaker. And it does not matter.
Ballast was one of the standout films in the Sundance last year and it was later picked up by IFC, but Hammer decided to self-distribute it. The movie is currently out in limited release. Generally I read movie reviews, but when a movie sounds interesting to me, I discard them, watch the film, and have my own opinion. One of the rare bad reviews the movie received comes from Richard Brody in the New Yorker who writes “The writer-director Lance Hammer’s cannily calculated independent début feature packs the melodramatic wallop of Hollywood storytelling in its low-key on-location naturalism”. And later “Though working outside the studio system and seeming to offer an alternative aesthetic, Hammer pushes every button as knowingly as a Hollywood player: each piece of his script fits as if in a mosaic; the portentous, artificially moody images serve as mere illustrations;(…)” And finally “Only a stone-hearted viewer could fail to root for the central trio in their struggles against poverty and pain, but, when the lights go up, it’s hard to avoid the feeling of having been taken in by formulas packaged as homemade.” Ouch… He makes it sound like the movie was cheesy, but it wasn’t.
Oh, yes, there is also this almost opposite review from Wesley Morris of the Boston Globe “The movie is a beacon of independent filmmaking, not simply because Hammer opted more or less to self-distribute it, but because it’s evident that we’re a million miles away from Hollywood. (…)”Ballast” is like a realist melodrama. That sounds paradoxical, like saying a freshly painted wall looks matte and glossy. Melodrama manipulates situations to wring emotion. Sometimes realism just hides the strings. In “Ballast,” the goal of the form is to become so transparent that all we notice are bodies and faces. It’s an illusion, of course. But, boy, does it work.” I usually do not agree with Morris’ reviews, as he tends to like 90% of the movies he reviews, but in this case I’m with him.
I think the Kendall Square Cinema is the only moviehouse that plays the film in our area. I would absolutely recommend this movie, just don’t expect explosions in the sky and high speed chases; the movie is slow and it builds up. But the performances from the non-actors are beautiful and the film is visually poetic.