Uncertain, Texas is a 94-resident town so tucked away that, in the words of the local sheriff “you’ve got to be lost to find it.” With a name like that, one can only imagine that the town’s founding fathers sensed there was, inherently, poetry in the murky waters. The filmmaking duo Ewan McNicol and Anna Sandilands sensed this too. And so they brought their cameras and their mics along to document one of the strangest parts of one of the strangest states in America. Structurally, the film connects three individual struggles of local men to a wider community concern that threatens the very future of Uncertain.
Like all great portrait documentaries, this film starts out with no kind introductions, throwing us into the deep end of the swamp so to speak. Uncertain begins with, if not a silent, then at least voiceless introduction to the three central men of the film. By turns both charming and unsettling there are moments of humour and humanity between the trio but, also, undeniably a whiff of the alien about each. What keeps you enthralled isn’t just the ‘see-it-to-believe-it’ Texplotation of these backwoods folk (highlights included the hunt for a horse-headed hog, UFOs and bad wi-fi), it’s their common humanity. Alongside moments of quietly gawking at their shit tattoos, odd hobbies and sketchy pasts, the tragic backstories of these three men are drip-fed to us. And, to be sure, some of the stories will leave you with no sympathy for the men, however one would be hard-pressed not to be moved by their struggles. For two of the older men (Henry and Wayne), it’s their past sins that have led them to get knowingly lost in the backwoods of Uncertain. But in the case of Zach, it is the promise of a better future that spurs him towards making a life-altering and, by turns, life-threatening escape to the Austin city limits. McNichol and Sandilands draw out the mortality of their subjects like a fisherman reeling in an impressive catch. As we watch them floundering in the proverbial boat of the camera’s lens, they appear all the more vulnerable than when hidden in the dark, safe waters of Uncertain.
Towards the end of the film I had a revelation that the town is like purgatory. It teems with death. People retire at the age of twenty one and then lie in wait, uncertain of their future and plagued by their past. The film is anchored around a creeping, impending sense of death. Uncertain’s vast, swampy lake is being choked by an aquatic weed, upsetting the natural balance and the town’s only source of livelihood. This land and its people are truly Southern gothic incarnate. The gloomy, ghostly thematic presence of William Faulkner (As I Lay Dying) and Cormac McCarthy (Suttee, Child of God) were ever present in my mind while watching and this serves only as a compliment to the mature, metaphysical tone McNichol and Sandilands create. In terms of cinematic sensibility, one could justifiably point out the Herzogian elements of the craft – specifically Herzog’s breakout doc Grizzly Man. More recently, the slept-on Raindance doc from last year I Am The Blues would make a neat companion piece to Uncertain. Both films delve into isolated, ageing American towns. However while I Am The Blues mined towns that were rich in delta-blues history, culture and art, there is something uniquely unsettling about Uncertain’s rootless, shadowy aura. The film is all the more enjoyable for it.
To conclude, I want to make reference to the perfectly pitched ending which, without giving too much away, will leave every viewer of Uncertain leaving hopeful. It would be a crying shame if this film went undiscovered, so let there be no uncertainty about it, this all-American gem is one of the best documentaries you’ll see all year.
Dir: Ewan McNicol, Anna Sandilands
Scr: Ewan McNicol, Anna Sandilands
Prd: Ewan McNicol, Anna Sandilands
DOP: Ewan McNicol
Music: Daniel Hart
Run time: 82 mins
Uncertain arrives in cinemas 10th March and on demand 17th March.