Uncertain is an apt name for a Texas town stuck in such a liminal state, right over the state line from Louisiana. We’re told it’s a safe haven for those looking to escape to or from something. Occasionally quirky and frequently conversational, Uncertain tells the story of a land that an interviewee calls a little bit of heaven and hell as work and prospects seem to try up along with the local Caddo Lake, which has been overtaken by a Salvina, a weed that’s choking the lake and hurting the town’s small fishing and tourism industries.
As captured by directors Ewan McNicol and Anna Sandilands, the prospects for most in town are slim, with young men claiming to retire at a relatively young age due to a shortage of work. One who fights back is Zach, a twenty-one-year-old weathering diabetes. He eventually saves $100, enough to buy rice and beans to sustain him for a week in Austin, where he tries to get back on his feet, living with roommates he can barely communicate with.
Zach doesn’t standing a fighting chance, where just about the only thing for a man of his age to do is cut the grass and get piss-drunk at the local watering hole. Wayne knows this first hand, being a recovering addict with plenty of baggage, including a son whom he never had chance to raise between his thirteen years in prison and his own battles. Adding context to the relationship, we’re told they never had a typical father/son relationship — instead he’s taught his son to cook meth and engage in threesomes with the few local women that have stuck around Uncertain. Wayne is recovering, on the straight and narrow as a mason and amateur hunter hellbent on capturing a wild hog using night vision, a 17-foot observation tower, and his trusty hunting dog. Wayne’s story is ultimately one of redemption and eventually vindication.
The third subject of the film is Henry, an African-American fisherman who recently lost his wife of 50 years. He’s no stranger to trouble, first assuring the local game warden he’s fishing legally, despite the Salvina infestation. Henry starts to have a relationship with a younger women against the objections of his daughter who’s feelings she doesn’t believe have been considered. Henry, too, has a troubled past that fleshes out the ghosts of Uncertain’s past as he simply wants what others want: a better life for their children.
Uncertain is primarily a study of place told through three generations. Like other stories of dying towns (including Medora, about a dried-up rural town as told through the eyes of its basketball team), it is an imperfect feat of ethnographic poetry. Beautifully lensed by co-director McNicol, Uncertain resists becoming an all-encompassing history of the town, looking back on primary source documents of the film’s subjects pasts — including police reports and videos, as well as crime-scene photographs. It remains more interested in the personal histories than informing us of the present.
Uncertain’s flaw — despite covering its tracks on this front early on, with commentary offered up by Zach — is the large absence of women’s voices beyond daughters, wives and Karen, a local shop keeper. Surely there are other dynamic and fascinating stories to be uncovered here and in other rural places. Uncertain is somber and effective work of mood and tone — a study of time and place, biography and geography that offers a slice of life that’s perhaps cut a little too thin.
Uncertain will be available on VOD on March 17, 2017.