There’s little point in attempting to figure why Lance Hammer’s “Ballast,” the best American film of 2008, was whisked in and out of so few theaters so quickly, in contrast even to minimalist imports and special-interest video docs in the same span, and despite universal critical hosannas. Good films get tossed by the wayside all the time, particularly in the contemporary state of distribution, but the good news is that movies never truly disappear anymore, they just tumble into the digital slipstream and become universally available.
Hammer’s uneasy, seething, oblique sojourn to the wintry Mississippi midlands is surely the best American “art film” about African-American life since Julie Dash’s “Daughters of the Dust,” except it might also be the only such film in 25 years. But “Ballast” is also a piece of work that stands outside social context — it’s as specific as a scar and as approachable as a blues growl.
Famously, the film’s tense visual strategy is reminiscent of the Dardennes, which is nothing if not an overdue and bracing thing — finally, an American indie that respects perspective and realism and time and off-screen space. That’s not the whole story, though, because Hammer’s film dodges around the Belgian brothers’ “issue film” schema, and his stormy palette and imagery are deep-dish and unforgettable, never merely rough-&-ready.
The action, set in a gray and damp section of bitter Mississippi countryside, begins with a suicide, and the pond ripples of that act, as well as its immediate circumstances, are left for us to cobble together gradually as we go, tying up in knots the lives of the dead man’s nearly catatonic twin brother (Micheal J. Smith Sr.), ersatz common-law wife (Tarra Riggs) and her 12-year-old son (JimMyron Ross). Exactly who the boy’s father is remains a question mark, but there’s no wondering about the tensions on the table, once the situation begins to unfold, revealing local drug dealers, a handgun, a closed-up grocery store and the ownership of a desolate couple of houses on an overgrown slab of nowhere land.
Hammer’s framing and phrasing are always heart-attack unpredictable, but at the same time, a large part of the film’s suspense emanates from the simple fact, as with the Dardennes and Jia Zhang-ke and Lucretia Martel, et al., that we never know enough about these characters to guess what they’ll do next. That’s realism (if we’re to believe a film, we cannot feel omnipotent, a very simple fact that the richest filmmakers in the world haven’t grasped), where a fiery gaze or something heard but not seen can make you hold your breath, and it almost goes without saying that American indie film is still pretty naïve about this kind of storytelling.
It helps in the course of “Ballast” that Hammer is a deft handler of non-professional actors: Smith is an unforgettably internalized figure, hulking about his homestead padded with flannel shirts and avoiding eye contact, while Ross’ weary, tentative demeanor seems to almost stem from his distrust of the film project itself; when he suddenly produces a loaded gun, apropos of nothing, it’s as if the whole movie is in the unknowable control of these people. Still, it’s Riggs’ wild-eyed mother, trying to prevent her son from vanishing into crime and destruction and herself into homelessness, that torches the place, and it’s no surprise to learn that Riggs has been busy finding work since.
This is, I dare say, the future of American independents, if we want it badly enough as an audience and don’t instead succumb to the idea that the programmatic, video-game bloat of Robert Zemeckis or James Cameron represent the future of anything except the death of the medium as we’ve known it and loved it.