Darren Aronofsky's new film is called The Wrestler, and much of it is shot with a handheld camera that sometimes -- only a few times, really -- stares at the back of its eponymous hero's head as he walks around. It brings to mind Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne whose films -- only a few of them, really -- sometimes make use of this same composition. It's exciting to think that mainstream American filmmakers may be influenced by the Dardennes, but the link to The Wrestler is fairly superficial. That isn't to say it's a bad film, not at all, but Aronofsky's appropriations, if they be, are skin deep. If he'd used a Steadicam for that same shot, we'd all be citing Béla Tarr.
The linkage goes much deeper in Ballast, the tiny, Mississippi-based debut by writer-director Lance Hammer who not only alludes directly to the Dardennes with a shot of a guy on a motorcycle but also seems to have internalized the humanism that drives their style. Rather than use the camera to gawk at an unfamiliar world, Ballast feels like an attempt to live within that world for as long as possible.
The Dardennes are known for using minimal exposition, natural light, only diegetic music -- a quilt of countervailing minima, you could say -- and they've proven that such a spare style lends weight to even minor flourishes. A film's entire attitude may rest on the timing of a cut to black. There's a scene in Ballast that shows the young protagonist sketching the face of a playing card, a king, while his mom discusses his schooling with his uncle. The discussion is happening in the wake of a family tragedy that has left everything in question, including the boy's future. While he and his pen remain in focus, the grownups are a blur in the background, squished by the lens so they look like aliens. Aside from its inherent beauty, the shot seems open to the mind in a way that it might not be if it were just one of many such gestures. But it's unique in the film, and it seems to have leapt from the work of the Dardennes -- who, to my recollection, haven't shot anything that looks quite like this -- toward something that is similarly inspired but also quite new. In this scene, the boy's attention remains fixed on his pen-project while Hammer's remains fixed on his camera-project, which is the boy, the lives of rural Mississippians, the world he seeks to know however an outsider with a camera can. The voices of the adults are soft in the mix.
Hammer's final shot before the Son-like cut to black is a pan inside a moving car that sets the characters on a particular trajectory. This simple, quick camera movement connects the same three people we saw in the sketching scene and elegantly answers a central question, answers it in the affirmative, and answers it silently. There's great pleasure in watching characters solve their problems by standing on them like ballast, and there's great pleasure in discovering a new filmmaker who's more interested in watching the rise than the fall.
Thanks for the review, Robert.
I felt so much sadness and dismay watching this film that I came away feeling like it was just too bleak, too overbearing. Still, I admired it, and told Mr. Hammer so on the way out of the theater at SIFF.
Months later, I'm still powerfully haunted by it, and so I'm glad I didn't rush off a review of it at the time. It has grown in my estimation, and I think I'm ready to see it again.
And I used "it" far too many times in that comment. Burn after reading, indeed.
I know what you mean, Jeffrey. I saw the film blindly at Sundance -- and I can't even remember why -- and was immediately knocked out by it, but I wasn't sure if it would hold up. I thought maybe I was swayed by the excitement of seeing an American filmmaker take such a serious and careful approach to his subject. I've since seen Man Push Cart and Chop Shop by Ramin Bahrani which helped clarify what I like about Ballast. I appreciate Bahrani's films, but they feel a little too heavily guided for my taste. Ballast seems to drift softly and inquisitively, and Hammer is never in a hurry to answer questions. But the major questions do have answers, and if we're patient as viewers we'll see them.
Much of the film is sad, but it's finally optimistic, and that last few seconds have played many times over in my head.
I talked with Hammer back in January, and now that the film is finally playing in theaters I think we'll feature some highlights on our podcast soon.
I really liked Michael Koresky's review in Reverse Shot, even though he chastises critics for over-emphasizing the Dardenne connection. I think it's important to point out the inspiration for the film and provide a kind of descriptive signpost to give an idea of what the film is like, but it's also important not to let that marker limit the film. It stands on its own, but it stands on the shoulders of others who -- as Koresky points out -- stood on shoulders themselves. Film critics like to make these connections, I think, because the act resonates with the medium itself, juxtaposing shots.
And he's right to blow off the connection to David Gordon Green. I really think that idea, which I haven't personally heard from any of the critics I follow but picked up second hand, comes entirely from the idea of a white filmmaker making a debut that's mostly about black Southerners, not from anything -- anything -- else. Ballast is not remotely like George Washington, and The Wrestler isn't much like The Son, to repeat my own analogy.
"I've since seen Man Push Cart and Chop Shop by Ramin Bahrani which helped clarify what I like about Ballast. I appreciate Bahrani's films, but they feel a little too heavily guided for my taste."
Yes! I absolutely agree with you, Rob. Guided but without the sensitivity to the uplift--or the potential for uplift--that undergirds both this (for me) extremely positive film and the work of the Dardennes, though both are characterized by poverty, post-disaster settings, and working class despair. If there's a spectrum to appreciate here, I'd say it's in films that gaze upon poverty to exploit, alienate, or soften their subject versus films that look upon poverty to acknowledge it on its own terms and invite the viewer to explore in a way that is revealing and stimulating, buoyant, promising...even hopeful, though I only invoke that word with the strictest sobriety. I'm not saying it needs a happy ending, of course, but something much deeper. I'd say Bahrani's films are somewhere in between.