There’s something serene about the idea of life on a barge, floating down a major river in the heartland of America. And at points, Barge evokes a certain romance of life on the calm waters. But it’s a certain kind of person that could handle being gone on the boat 28 days in a row, working in constant on-again off-again six-hour shifts with a crew of other gruff men.
The prospect sounds a lot more enticing when one crewmember explains, partway through, that, “Without a college education, you can make more than 100+ thousand a year.”
Barge provides a glancing portrait of some of those who fit the bill, men who play dice together gambling with cigarettes or who swing sledgehammers aboard the giant drifting mass. There’s the chef, who says it’s the first time in his life he’s been above the poverty level, or a hardworking deckhand who spent a decade in prison before coming aboard.
These characters bring a level of intrigue to the film, bolstered by the imagery of a class of heavy labor that, whenever possible, has been outsourced or mechanized. But America still needs hands like these to haul grain, coal, fertilizer, plastic and other goods in large quantities.
At times, Barge makes strong use of music to amplify the melancholy yet bootstrap nature of the film. But there are moments where the film itself elicits the feeling of being on a barge, inviting the viewer to zone out as thick drawls sound over boat radios or the landscape slips past. It’s fitting, then, that the film runs just above an hour, credits excluded.
Barge screens on April 15 and 16 at 1 p.m. at A/perture Cinema and April 17 at 2 p.m. at UNCSA Babcock Theatre.
— Eric Ginsburg