In the beautiful prologue to James Hammer’s distinctive (and distinguished) first film, Ballast, a black boy of about 13 runs across a bleak and desolate field in the Mississippi Delta. He startles a flock of white geese into flight, a flock, which as he runs towards it, becomes a big noisy cloud, causing the boy no end of wonder and satisfaction.
The pastoral note doesn’t last very long. A convenience store owner, Darius, hasn’t been seen for a while. John (Johnny McPhail), one of his white neighbors, stops by to see why. Instead of Darius, he finds his twin brother, Lawrence (Michael J. Smith, Sr.), lying expressionless on the couch and he says, “Oh, Lawrence, I’m sorry to bother you, but people’s been worried about you, the store being closed and all. Are you okay?” And then the smell tells him that nothing’s okay. Darius is dead in the next room. To John’s questions of how long he’s been like that and didn’t you call anyone, Lawrence answers by turning on the TV, and when John calls for help on his cell phone, Lawrence suddenly jumps up, rushes out and shoots himself.
In a rapid series of very short scenes, Lawrence is taken to the hospital, operated on for the gunshot wound to his right breast, sedated, put on a respirator and revived. The uniformly kindly white doctors and nurses tell Lawrence of all he’s been through in the 10 days he’s been in the hospital. These indoor scenes, shot under harsh fluorescent lights, are as good to look at as the outdoor scenes shot in a bluish winter light of preternatural beauty. (Lol Crawley is the expert cinematographer.)
When Lawrence comes home, he finds his house (really almost a shack) has been broken into. So has Darius’ house next door. Lawrence doesn’t seem to care all that much. He just goes to bed and lies down again, adopting that same stricken attitude we saw him in at first. He gets up when John comes to the door with Lawrence’s dog, Juno. John’s been looking after Juno while Lawrence was in the hospital. He wonders whether Lawrence ready to take him back. John can tell from Lawrence’s face that he isn’t ready. The scene is compact with John’s kindness, Lawrence’s grief and Juno’s bafflement of not knowing where or to whom he belongs. This is Hammer at his best in his minimalist mode.
Ballast often shows the influence of Robert Bresson in his editing, lighting and design. Hammer’s laconic (and often inaudible) dialogue also reminds us of Bresson. James (Jim Myron Ross, the teenager of the prologue) and his mother, Marlee (Tarra Riggs), Darius’ ex-wife, blow away the French influence and show Hammer to be a filmmaker of many modes, most of them tragicomic. When James steals Lawrence’s pistol while he’s in the hospital and, wildly waving the gun, demands money, their comic exchanges are pure Mark Twain. The uncle offers his wallet and, as James demands, fetches his father’s wallet from next door. (Total yield: about $20.) Their dialogue digresses hilariously onto the subject of non-identical twins such as Lawrence and Darius. It also confirms for Lawrence his suspicion that James, like his mother, has a dangerous taste for drugs.
There’s a subplot involving James and the scummy low-level dealers to whom he’s in debt. Together they break into Marlee’s house and try to steal the TV, but waving the gun at them, he forces them out. They take revenge on James and Marlee and then James takes revenge on them. Here is Hammer in his neo-realist mode with often improvised dialogue. An important development is that James abandons violence. He’s shown removing the bullets from the clip of the pistol and sowing them in the water-filled furrows of a rice field. One of the meanings of “ballast” is “to steady mentally or morally.” Is that sort of ballast within reach?
For James perhaps. But for Marlee? Filled to overflowing with past and present grievances, she seems at first the familiar type of single mother wanting desperately to give her son at least the semblance of a home. She’s kicked her habit and now holds down a low-paying job (there’s a shot of her cleaning a toilet), trying hard to keep her son at his studies and away from bad influences. The only stability she’s known up to now is that of hating her ex-husband and his brother and teaching James to hate them as well. A promise of dissolution to this powerful bond comes about when she learns that Darius has left behind a paper giving her his house, the land it stands on and a share in the convenience store. This is Hammer in his Faulkner mode.
A desperate single mother, a son in danger from low-level drug dealers: these may seem unlikely sources for comedy, but Hammer is a master at wringing a poignant laughter from out of the lives of the poor. That is Hammer in his Beckett mode. A resolution of sorts occurs when Marlee starts working at the store and makes a success of it, too (Hammer in his slapstick mode). Lawrence and she reach an understanding about her inheritance and they agree about home schooling for James. they share a family meal, and afterwards, washing the dishes together, Marlee forgives Lawrence and Lawrence consoles Marlee. Once again ballast seems possible. They embrace, but then – what a mistake! – he moves to kiss her.
After Marlee explodes in anger and Lawrence, misunderstood again, retreats into himself reconciliation seems impossible. And yet….
Note: Ballast isn’t available in stores, at Amazon or on Netflix. This will doubtless change soon. So auspicious a debut cannot be ignored. Meanwhile, for more about the movie’s speechless, ever present star, the Mississippi Delta itself, I recommend Delta Land (University Press of Mississippi, 1999), a book of sepia-toned photographs by the talented Delta native, Maude Schuyler Clay.
Not yet released.
Directed, written, edited and co-produced by Lance Hammer;
Cinematography by Lol Crawley;
USA; 2008; 96 minutes; Color;
Format: Dolby SRD, 35mm Scope.