James Stewart stars as a railroad man hired to secretly carry a payroll despite his suspected connections to outlaws
Estranged family members are unexpectedly brought together by the suicide of a relative in Lance Hammer's distinctive directorial debut, set in the Mississippi Delta
Everything about Ballast is hard: its setting in the impoverished wastes of the Mississippi Delta, its story of misfortunate, socially (and cinematically) invisible characters, its unflinching documentary realism. Sadly, then, it's all too easy to see why the film, despite winning major festival plaudits - first, when it premiered at Sundance in 2008, then at Berlin and Toronto - has been not just hard, but nigh-on impossible, to watch in the years since.
Ballast is being compared to Charles Burnett's Killer Of Sheep and the films of the Dardenne brothers, and while these are clear touchstones, it feels (ironically) timely that it reaches UK cinema screens in the wake of Oscar-contender Winter's Bone. Like Debra Granik's film, it centres on a brave young protagonist left in dire straits by an absent father, prematurely negotiating a crime and drug-ridden adult world - located in a hardscrabble American landscape so alien to any that mainstream Hollywood cinema depicts it might as well be another planet.
The difference is that where Granik's film twists her material into riveting Gothic thriller territory, Hammer plays it entirely straight. The effect is no less riveting, though undeniably more challenging for the viewer. Despite igniting some dubious criticism to the contrary, there is nothing black and white about Hammer's film, its characters, their relationships or their narratives. James' mother Marlee veers completely conceivably between rage and catatonic despair at their situation (only ever fully losing her cool when's she fired from her cleaning job because her boss is worried the bruises from an assault she's suffered will upset customers), maternal affection, stoicism and a sense of guarded optimism.
Marlee's relationship with Lawrence, the twin brother of James's dead father, Darius, is an ambiguous one which Hammer's script sensitively observes but - boldly and refreshingly - never seeks to resolve. Like Lol Crawley's poetic but never ostentatious cinematography (motifs - like the surreal twin deer sculptures plonked outside Lawrence and Darius's adjoining homes which echo the film's concern with sibling identity and family ties - are filmed so unobtrusively they might as well be subliminal), Hammer's approach is more complex and thoughtful than its documentary aesthetic immediately suggests. As Marlee says of Lawrence's newfound interest in his nephew's well-being, ultimately, Ballast is a film that's "confusing but makes sense".
A hugely impressive, distinctive directorial debut and a compellingly humanist window onto a layer of American society that mainstream cinema likes to pretend doesn't exist.
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