Uncertain is a documentary that opens like a horror movie. We’re on a boat, deep in what resembles a mangrove swamp in the dead of night. A torchlight flits back and forth, highlighting glimpses of wildlife and teasing the foreboding wilderness. Suddenly, there’s a body in a boat, and a man begins making animal calls into the night…
It’s an evocative opening that might indicate a film akin to Deliverance or Southern Comfort, but Uncertain is nothing of the sort. Rather this is a slice-of-life documentary that, while not without shades of those classic cautionary tales of the American hinterlands, is a true story not of cackling monsters in the woods, but of broken and all-too-real human beings that live on the fringes.
The film explores the tiny town of Uncertain, Texas, which lies so close the border of Louisiana that it’s state-designation is, well, uncertain. It’s a town with a population of just 94, and is so out of the way that, for the most part, nobody would ever find themselves there. “You’ve got to be lost to find it” drawls the local sheriff, wryly. It’s a patch of forgotten, overlooked America, and the film follows three of the town’s unlikely characters: an ageing fisherman/tour guide who ruminates on past tragedies; a hunter with a vendetta against one particular member of the local boar community; and a charismatic young man with diabetes trying to escape from his dead-end existence.
Uncertain, both the film and the town, are filled with such a vivid assortment of characters that it would be all-too easy to believe this was a work of fiction. And yet each of them are so undeniably real (their stories so rich and their souls so unquestionably lived-in), that it’s impossible to doubt their veracity.
The fourth character, as it were, is a part of the local ecosystem; a weed called salvinia molesta that’s infested and almost suffocated the local lake which the town relies on for tourism. The name Uncertain may once have been whimsical, but now it seems to refer directly to the town’s very chances of survival if the weed’s incessant growth cannot be stopped.
Directed by Ewan McNicol and Anna Sandilands, Uncertain is a feast for the eyes. From the gorgeous landscapes, which span the creepy-if-majestic mangroves, to the all-pervading weed, through to the general decay of backwater America, to the beautiful way the film’s subjects are framed and shot throughout, McNicol and Sandilands’ documentary makes for an exceptionally lush and visually arresting film. It also boasts a perfectly weighted soundtrack. But as beautiful as it is, the film is also inescapably sad. Uncertain could pass for a post-apocalypse town if we didn’t know any better; the creeping dread of the salvinia only amplifying the otherworldly pall that hangs over the place and its people.
The three principal subjects are each fascinating in their own way. The most entertaining is Wayne, the hunter with the Captain Ahab-like obsession with “Mr. Ed, the hog with a horse’s head”. A recovering addict, and with a backstory littered with tragedy and jail time, Wayne’s current life doesn’t seem so bad. He’s a little eccentric, sure, but happy hunting the local wildlife, and clearly in a better place than he might be. Some reveals (like the fact that Wayne used to share threesomes with his own son) are shocking to us, but presented matter-of-factly. When he thinks his boar-hunting cameras have picked up a UFO, his easy willingness to accept that aliens may have stolen his prize is endearing. Yet for all Wayne laughs and jokes, the weight of a life lived hard is obvious.
Henry, the elderly local fisherman, requires subtitles as his speech is difficult to understand; a result of either a loss of teeth, old age, his thick accent, or perhaps a combination of all three. Henry’s forays out onto the lake provide much of the film’s verdant, stately cinematography, but it’s on Henry’s craggy, sunken face that the film finds a different kind of topography, which is equally fascinating and unforgettable. Having lost his wife, Henry spends his days out on the water, trying to make peace with himself and with his god for the folly of his youth. Much like Wayne, there’s much death and tragedy in Henry’s past. His present involves a questionable new girlfriend, and it’s difficult not to pity this good-natured old man, who just wants to find a connection.
The third figure is Zach, an alcoholic diabetic who’s found himself born in a town with zero prospects and nothing to offer. Zach veers between cynical acceptance of this fact and wishing earnestly for more. It’s heart-breaking to see such a charismatic young man stuck in this situation, and who, living with his cats and spending all day on his Xbox (one of the few instances of technology found in the movie — but don’t worry, he later hides his weed stash inside it), has already become the ‘crazy cat-person’ cliché. Zach’s attempts to beat the booze, by keeping a vlog, and ultimate decision to up sticks to Austin for a better life are inspiring, but you fear that even with the world opened up before him, his life until now has left him a little too, well, uncertain to know what to do with it.
Uncertain depicts a part of the US on the cusp; the kind of place that won’t exist before long. There’s so much life here; much of it lived hard, but also plenty that’s spirited and vibrant and just happy to be there at all. It’s a place where the broken and the eccentric seem to congregate, away from the rest of civilisation. For those born there, it’s perhaps a curse. For those that chose it, it’s a way-station between one life and the next. And all the while, the weed continues to choke the life out of it.
McNicol and Sandilands have captured each of those aspects beautifully and with aching sorrow. Uncertain is striking and languid and wholly engaging; a documentary with a confident sense of narrative, and an eye for finding the beauty in tortured landscapes, be they geographic or emotional. Even if this particular town disappears, there will always be another: hidden away, off the beaten track, there will always be places that fall between. Where people fall through the cracks; not quite a ghost town, but not quite a city. A distinctly in between sort of place. And there will be towns just like it all over the world. That much is certain.
Uncertain is available on UK iTunes from 24 March.
writers & directors: Ewan McNicol & Anna Sandilands.