by Philip Price
After watching Noah Baumbach's latest feature, “While We're Young,” a few weeks back I'm afraid of becoming terribly cynical when it comes to documentaries and the documentarians that seemingly have to manufacture certain parts of the truth so as to make their projects all the more engaging. With “Uncertain” though, it's hard to see where any embellishments or adjustments were made as directors Ewan McNicol and Anna Sandilands have approached a number of individuals taking refuge in a small part of the country no one else would bother to visit and picking out the more interesting stories that came to the surface. It is interesting to question whether or not McNicol and Sandilands knew what they were looking for before making their way to Uncertain, Texas or if they were simply gambling on stumbling upon something worth their investment. I have no doubt the initial draw here was the lake, the town’s only real source of income, that is being threatened by a substance obtained from a plant that's essentially polluting the water, clearing out the fish and ultimately making everyone's future in the small town, well, uncertain. In the midst of scientists working to eradicate the plant though McNicol and Sandilands have come across three varied men who spell out the repercussions and grim outlook the lake-infesting weed presents much more so than strictly fact-based presentations the scientist gives. The documentarians take it from here, guiding the audience through the lives of these three residents whose lives each share a kinship with the titular adjective and place they call home. Full of gorgeous cinematography and breathtaking beauty despite the camera capturing what are images of a time tainted town that has become draped in the harshness of reality and desperation of the times Uncertain paints an uncomfortable picture of modern, small-town America. It's a picture we typically care to turn a blind eye to, but can't help but be fascinated when this rock is lift up to reveal the ongoing life underneath it.
Making it all the more a mystery as to how McNicol and Sandilands stumbled upon it, Caddo Lake in Uncertain sits right on the Texas-Louisiana border with a population of only ninety-four. The film opens with an introduction to Henry Lewis who is a fishing guide with a thick, southern drawl and a dangerous past. He has lived and worked on the Caddo his entire life, fishing every single day of the week and the one with the most to lose from the incoming botanical issue that threatens the welfare of the entire town. Next, we are introduced to Wayne Smith, a former drug addict who's on a mission to kill a local wild boar that he's nicknamed Mr. Ed. Finally, there is Zach Warren, a young man who has been seemingly abandoned by everyone who initially had anything to do with him coming into this world and who is now determined to break out of his small, decaying town as he realizes the vicious circle of drinking he's become wrapped up in. While both Henry and Wayne are attempting to find a kind of absolution from their tainted pasts Zach is attempting to escape the only world he knows so that he doesn't end up in the same situation as his counter parts, but ultimately trapped by it. McNicol specifically edits the film so that we initially embrace these three quirky and funny individuals so that we are compassionate when it comes time to reveal the extent of their story and why their current livelihood is as important as ever. This works wonders for how we perceive the characters and the sympathy that is conjured up despite a very different reaction seeming possible were it not presented in the fashion it is.
Between the stories presented and the seeming correlation these individual lives have with the town itself that is barely holding on, the filmmakers are able to create a distinct kind of poetry that fits the haunting tone of the landscapes and the isolated existence these residents experience from day to day. Near the end of the film Lewis talks about being reunited with his family once again and being afforded the chance to see them all, but having to make it to heaven first to be able to do that. It's the making it to heaven part he seems concerned with, starting to go to church just after his wife passed away, so as to in some way make amends for his past and at least put himself on his Savior's radar so that he might have a shot at seeing his wife and his daughter along with other deceased relatives again one day. He talks of consistently praying to God over the years and hoping he understands why he did what he did and that he might see things from his point of view. It is a heartbreaking scene that brings into focus the scope of what McNicol and Sandilands have been attempting to paint the entire time. That humanity, nature and spirituality each go hand in hand, complimenting the existence of one another and their inherent need for each other whether it be for reassurance, for sustainability or simply to bask in the thought there must be a higher power to create such beauty given coincidence seems too far out of the realm of possibility when it comes to the landscapes and opportunity the directors have captured here.