Review: Merciless Fates in Lance Hammer’s Ballast

No mercy is shown to the players in Ballast, and not much more to the film’s viewers. The camera quietly trails the travails of a family in the Mississippi Delta. It documents what at first appears to be the minutiae of their lives, though soon proves to be the actions and results of traumatic, life changing events. The audio is occupied by only the sounds the characters make, without a touch of non-diegetic embellishment. Everyone’s movements resound while moments of silence open up an emotional void.

The tone brilliantly suits the content, as Lawrence (Michael J. Smith Sr.) appears to merely exist, as if tragedy has overtaken him and he can see nothing but the same down the road. We realize why when we learn his brother — soon revealed to be his twin — has been recently killed, but moreso when Lawrence’s pre-adolescent nephew, James (JimMyron Ross), comes to hold him up at gunpoint.

James’ issues are a point of sympathy for Lawrence, likely why he undergoes the repeated holdups in his home without any kind of retaliation. The progress of these events play like knocks on the door to infinite unhappiness.

Young James certainly cannot see beyond his current state, with his father dead and mother struggling to make ends meet. James takes to the wrong crowd by running errands and picking up a habit in the process. His dependency makes him beholden to the dealers, as he’s made Lawrence to himself by repeatedly robbing him for drug money. James rides his moped through fields in an attempt to abandon the oppression of his life. Yet when he can no longer pay the dealers for his habit, they come after him. The film’s most harrowing scene comes when his mother is caught in the middle.

The gun-toting James may seem like child’s play for writer/director Lance Hammer — an image the fosters moralizing about youth on drugs. But when the gun goes off we realize that a kid with an impulse could easily turn into a willful killer. Hammer’s handheld camera following James is urgent even if steady — it reflects the objectivity devoted to truth over sentimentality.

Surely this could be the stuff of lurid melodrama, given the tragedy, drugs, and the Southern setting — suitable for both Flannery O’Connor and daytime talk-show trash. Before these media forms reflected such situations, there was a truth to such poverty and oppression — one that Hammer’s miraculous narrative style realizes in an emotionally wracking tale.

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