Nothing much happens in the Texas town of Uncertain. It’s the sort of sleepy burg you might drive through without stopping, barely even noticing that anyone lives there at all. The type of place where Mother Nature can stretch out her legs and grow, safe in the knowledge there will be little or no comeback. Which is exactly what appears to be happening when a mysterious weed rapidly spreads across Caddo Lake, threatening the town’s main source of income.
The premise may sound like something out of a Stephen King novel, and as we glide between the towering gothic-style trees that hang over the winding stretches of water, you’d be forgiven for having flashbacks of Southern Comfort or Deliverance. The pending eco-disaster is beginning to affect the fishing trade and scare away tourists, while the fish are slowly starved of oxygen.
Co-directors Ewan McNicol and Anna Sandilands’ debut documentary feature cleverly positions this thematic foundation to explore the lives of three men within the town. The camera remains observant without passing judgement, allowing the histories and individual quirks of each one to reveal themselves naturally. There are a number of ways you could interpret the director’s use of the environment set against the stories of these men. Rather than forcing us to take one particular metaphor as the leading guide, we are given autonomy to reach our own conclusions.
When we find Tom, he is perched silently amongst the trees, draped in camouflage gear firing a 19th century rifle into a pack of wild boars. He is a recovering addict and ex-con who came to Uncertain with his girlfriend, also in recovery, to start a new life. Most of our time is spent with Tom after nightfall obsessively hunting down his nemesis ‘Mr Ed’, a particularly large boar that dominates the local forest. Once he begins to talk about his past life as a drug addict, it becomes easy to understand why this place offers so him much solace.
74-year-old Henry has spent his entire adult life on the lake as a tour guide. His thick Southern accent is given clarity by subtitles, which can usually feel condescending when attached to English speakers. This is one of those rare occasions when it is warranted. There is a lot of history resting underneath Henry’s tired eyes and deeply weathered hands. Family tragedies and racial conflicts that continue to haunt him to this day.
Zach is the first person we meet in the town, a young man struggling to find a meaningful existence in Uncertain, beyond drinking himself to death. His family history is no doubt a huge contributing factor to his alcoholism, with his doctor telling him he will struggle to live beyond 35. Being a diabetic also complicates matters and maybe leaving town is the only way left to save himself.
A local scientist is also attempting to find ways to solve the growing issue on the lake. He is up against a particularly resilient strain of nature evolving on a scale the local infrastructure is unable to handle. He works on a plan to engineer a natural solution, introducing weevil beetles to eat away at the salvinia. How long this might take or how successful this option might prove to be is anyone’s guess.
Visually there is much to admire about the film while the lens absorbs the natural beauty of the surroundings. The idyllic setting is eased into the texture of the narrative from the moment we arrive in the town, with not a single word uttered for the first ten minutes. The accompanying score only appears sporadically but used with intelligence to compliment the flow of the story carefully being built around these men.
Like most fictional films, the key to making a successful documentary is the characters and those stories that lie within. Once you have those elements you then need the ability to weave these together in a compelling fashion. McNicol and Sandilands clearly have that talent in abundance, unearthing a sense of humanity that is easy for us to understand and connect with.
Uncertain is at the ICA from 10th March and On Demand from 17th March.
A thoughtful and insightful first film by two new directors to watch out for.