An intimate, artful look at a remote East Texas community, this documentary evokes a rapidly disappearing American milieu.
The southern town of Uncertain sits on the border between Texas and Louisiana, so named because early surveyors couldn’t be sure to which state this out-of-the-way burg actually belonged. The population, mostly poor or in some way seeking to avoid the law, hovers in the double-digits — 94, according to a sign on the city limits, although it seems that residents are either dying or leaving faster than they can be replenished.
Like a documentary version of “Beasts of the Southern Wild,” complete with the looming threat of a surreal environmental catastrophe (in this case, an invasive fern-like plant called salvinia that’s “swallowing up” the lake and suffocating the fish), “Uncertain” focuses on a handful of these locals, individuals whose fates mirror the town’s name. In another director’s hands, the residents might be labeled “eccentric” and condescendingly depicted for laughs, but Ewan McNicol and Anna Sandilands approach this touch-and-go community with curiosity and humanism, capturing what feels like a deciding moment in a series of struggles so far off the grid, they would otherwise escape our notice entirely.
Finally trickling into a few theaters — and iTunes — nearly two years after it premiered at the 2015 Tribeca film festival, where its directors won the Albert Maysles Documentary Director Award, a movie like this isn’t apt to inspire any spontaneous pilgrimages (it’s hard enough attracting audiences to visit the town vicariously on screen). “Uncertain is not on the way to anywhere,” says the local sheriff. “You’ve either got to know where you’re going or be lost to find it.”
Those who have come to Uncertain are generally trying to escape something — the law, mostly. They are haunted, at any rate, which makes for an evocative portrait of several rugged souls whom the directors met after setting out to learn what they might find in a town with such an intriguing name. To join them is to step back in time to a place that looks positively primeval (the swamp-like Cabbo Lake is shrouded in mist and the thick grey moss that hangs from surrounding cypress branches), where barely-employed locals spend their time hunting and fishing, or else trying to forget their troubles at the town bar (or in the case of the opening scene, passed out drunk in a drifting rowboat).
Instantly fascinating, the film’s various characters speak in a thick Texas drawl, sometimes so strong that they require subtitles to understand. Now in his seventies, Henry recalls how the other black folk in town resented him for having white friends, calling him an “Uncle Tom,” which blew up in an altercation where he shot another man in the face. Roughly a generation younger, recovering addict Wayne was also responsible for taking another man’s life, albeit under very different circumstances (the film even includes video of his arrest). He invites the filmmakers along for late-night hunting sessions, as he stalks a wild boar with his muzzleloading rifle. A scruffy white kid covered in amateur tattoos, diabetic Zach doesn’t see much future in Uncertain (where people “retire at 21,” he says) and decides to try his luck in Austin.
Visually, this gorgeously photographed film (lensed by McNicol himself) recalls the work of Cannes-anointed documentarian Robert Minervini, albeit a gentler view of marginal American lives than those seen in “The Other Side.” Though shot digitally, the footage goes a long way to suggest the organic texture of the lakeside community: the muggy, mosquito-filled air; the eerie serenity out on the water, or in the woods; the old bait shop with its peeling paint job. The line between animal and human, nature and civilization, seems especially porous in Uncertain. In one scene, with the aid of night vision, we observe as a half-domesticated raccoon spends his evenings indoors, curled up next to the family dog.
With the support of Daniel Hart’s almost elegiac score, the filmmakers distill the coarse poetry in their surroundings, giving voice to the suspended dreams of the locals. Their situation may not be hopeless, but it’s far from easy, and the filmmakers search the salvinia problem for a metaphor of some sort, finding an imperfect one in a scientific project to control the spreading water weed via the introduction of weevils. Residents worry whether the solution may have come too late. “It’s sad to see that the only place like this is going away,” says one, as we wonder what will become of this town and its citizens. I guess that’s Uncertain for you.