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Triad and Tumult

Ballast (Alluvial Film Company)
Elite Squad (IFC Films)

Still another extraordinary new American director comes along--the third in just a few months. After Courtney Hunt with Frozen River and Chris Eska with Autumn Evening, here is Lance Hammer with Ballast. Though these three directors have little in common stylistically, all three of their films deal with working-class people.

Hammer's film, which he also wrote and edited, is his first feature. Set in the Mississippi Delta, its three principal characters are black, yet the first person we see is white. He is a man called John who carefully enters the house of a neighbor, Lawrence, because Lawrence hasn't been seen for a bit and John is worried. He finds Lawrence sitting immobile; in the next room his twin brother Darius lies dead--of an overdose, we learn. Lawrence is now sufficiently roused to shoot himself but is only wounded. Taken to a hospital, he recovers.

The rest of the film explains the beginning and moves it forward. The story takes us to Darius's ex-mistress, Marlee; to her twelve-year-old son by him, James; and to Lawrence's involvement with them. Marlee, who is still simmering with anger at Darius's brusque treatment of her, has a menial job, which she loses. James, trying to help his mother, gets tangled for a time with drug dealers. In a shaky juvenile way, he even confronts Lawrence at gunpoint, attempting to get some of Darius's money that he thinks belongs to Marlee. Lawrence calms him. Still, Lawrence feels more and more involved in Darius's responsibility to Marlee and James, and is also himself attracted to Marlee. He offers her a job in his food store, and she accepts. In his slow, taciturn, even gentle way, Lawrence moves toward Marlee, but she rebuffs him. However, at the finish--the film takes place in summer--when James goes off to school, peace among these three seems possible.

The story has more verity than flash. No sliver of artifice or doubt ever intrudes: from the very start we are less viewers than witnesses. (Admittedly, occasional scraps of dialogue could be clearer.) In the press notes for the film--which actually seem to have been written by the man who made the picture--Hammer says he was primarily interested in the atmospheric effect. He realized that "some degree of narrative structure would be required" in order to give form to the work, but his main interest is "the tonal phenomenon." His people are treasured, yet it is the very way that he looks at them, presents them, that is his chief concern. This does not mean showy virtuoso stylistics; but all through Ballast we are aware of our sense of accompaniment, moving along with Hammer as he watches and listens.

The physical shape of the film seems at first an oxymoron. Ballast is in wide-screen format, which is usually reserved for spectacle and lushness; yet the film verges on the visually bleak. The Delta country that we see is gaunt. The wide screen was used, it seems, to set the three principal characters in as much of their environment as possible, to make them inhabitants as well as people--remembering, while respecting them, that they are dots in a cosmos. And the picture was shot in available light, whatever light was naturally present. Strangely, this method, in the camera of Lol Crawley, does not make for vérité : it blends the realism with a hint of abstraction. (This effect is heightened by the almost complete absence of music.) Crowning the techniques of the film is Hammer's editing, which is like gentle weaving. As good editing always does, it leads our eyes where we want to look.

The temper of the film is so intensely personal that it is little surprise to learn how it was made. Not for the first time in film history, the principals were non-professional. More: the performers made their roles as if they were making their own garments. Hammer's statement needs quoting: "Though a script was created, it was not distributed [to the cast]. Scenario was discussed, then given form, in the course of a two-month rehearsal process. Actors contributed their own language to the rehearsals, dialogue evolved as the result." This method could easily have led nowhere. What is implicit here, beneath the reticence, is Hammer's talent. His choices of the non-actors, his relations with them, his skill at evocation, his pruning, his fixed view of what he was working toward--these were surely the mainstays under those two months.

So each of the three principals appears in a role substantially self-created. JimMyron Ross as James is infused with trembling sincerity. Micheal J. Smith Sr. is Lawrence, a role that is built on degrees of quiet. Lawrence is silent and brooding much of the time, and Hammer has found the depth in Smith that the silence portends. Marlee is the most emotionally demanding role, and Tarra Riggs vitalizes every measure of it. (Smith has since returned to his public service job in Mississippi. Ross is back in school. Only Riggs has gone on with acting.) The one prominent white person is the one professional actor, Johnny McPhail, who brushes in some helpful strokes as John.

At the last, Ballast, like every outstanding film, is something of a double experience. The drama holds us, yet we are equally taken by Hammer's vision and his ability to fulfill it. What kind of future will he have? We can keep our fingers crossed.

Tightly crossed, if he wants to continue his creative method with his casts. This approach to film-making, taking a non-actor and stripping him to essentials he may not even be aware of, has a long history--a history largely unwritten, as far as I know. (Robert Bresson is the arch-example in the field.) Two of the films discussed here recently, The Pool and August Evening, used non-actors beautifully--amid professionals. Hammer puts his film almost wholly in the hands of three non-actors who worked out their own roles and found their capabilities. Possibly this recent resurgence of non-professional performance has to do with current worryings about the term "reality"; perhaps it is because of so crass a reason as production budget; perhaps it is a dislike of actorishness. (Bresson once threatened to leave a rehearsal for one of his films if his cast didn't stop acting.) As one who loves acting--even, to some degree, actorishness--and who owes some of his cherished experiences in art to acting, I am awestruck by what can often be achieved with this heterodox approach. Part of this success is obviously possible because film acting can be done in bits, as against sustained performance on stage. But much of it may be because the screen gives each member of the audience an additional eye--the camera.

The slums of Rio de Janeiro are world-infamous, possibly for two reasons. First, Rio is also known for its annual carnival, which winds through the streets ecstatically as it passes the slums. Second, the situation between the police and the criminals in the Rio slums is not the usual struggle between law enforcement and lawbreakers, but nearly outright war.

Elite Squad is thus less a cops-versus-druggers film like its many forebears; it is a battle picture. The screenplay was written by the director Jose Padilha, Braulio Montovani, and Rodrigo Pimentel. Pimentel was a member of the Rio police for eleven years, five of them in the Special Operations Police Batallion, the "elite squad." This squad, consisting of one hundred specially trained men, is a SWAT team taken even further. (The squad's insignia is a skull.) With Pimentel on board, we can assume that the film is factually reliable.

A captain in that squad, not a grizzled vet but a youngish man, is married and has an expectant wife. His aim, as his voice-over tells us through the action, is to finish his police war and, with his wife and forthcoming son, find another life. The picture takes us through this period in his career. The action consists of raids on drug dealers, gunfights, tortures, corruptions, loyalties, betrayals, revenges. Arrests seem less frequent than killings. The general effect of the police raids on the slums is of hunters invading animal warrens, except that here the animals are armed.

Padilha, experienced in documentary, is here a devotee of the moving camera, frequently hand-held. Obviously he feels that the constant turbulence of the material rules out a lot of static composition or even conventional tracking shots. He also relies on pan swipes from person to person instead of cutting from one face to the other. This swiping suggests not only pressures of the moment but basic quasi-panic and anger. No one is ever surprised by the violence. It is accepted.

Accepted by audiences too. Elite Squad was a tremendous hit in Brazil. Of course police action films are often hits in their countries of origin before they succeed elsewhere. But I can't think of any other film of this genre in which the norm is virtual warfare. Brazilians, to whom these conditions could have hardly been news, were evidently fascinated.

And not only Brazilians. The jury of this year's Berlin Film Festival gave the Golden Bear, their first prize, to this modestly competent piece of work. I don't know most of the other films that were in competition--Ballast was one!--but clearly the jury was in a sanguinary mood, and the other pictures just didn't measure up.

Stanley Kauffmann is The New Republic's film critic. This article originally ran in the October 22, 2008, issue of the magazine.