By Elias Savada.
The new film from Ewan McNicol and Anna Sandilands begins like a mystery. It’s a dark night. A lone flashlight scans the Cypress trees and Irish moss of a murky lake, as insects flit about, their buzzing intensifying to an uneasy cacophony of unsettling noise. Uncertain isn’t a thriller, though, despite the barely-clad body (living) found in its opening moments. It’s a slice-of-lifer documentary that captures a widowed, weathered fisherman/guide (also a reformed convicted killer), a full-camouflage wild hog hunter, and other residents of a backwaters town on the Texas-Louisiana border. The aging denizens of the not-so-deep are adept in their techniques, some handed down through many generation, others learned as they pick up their lives after lengthy prison stints. A gangly 21-year-old diabetic man named Zack “Geek” Warren commiserates at a local bar or in his disheveled home, bemoaning the lack of employment opportunities and the scarcity of suitable – if any – dating material.
Uncertain, Texas: population 94.
With a camera that gracefully and politely follows its subjects and the breathtaking lake and landscape they call home, McNicol’s lyrical photography (he was also co-editor with Marco Perez and co-everything else with Sandilands) offers a sit-and-wait approach, often grabbing a poignant moment here and there. We are placed on a porch floor near a group of catfish about to be cooked for their last supper, where a sedate black cat ambles by in the background. Soon the feline is munching on a morsel. The sequence is less than a minute (the film is mostly comprised of these alternating snapshot moments for the three main characters), but collectively they create a marvelous, absorbing, and somewhat intoxicating whole.
Ah, there is a back story. The fact that the vegetation in Caddo Lake — the town’s popular attraction and economic mainstay (“Wetland of International Significance,” one sign reads) — is overgrowing at a deadly rate. Whatever its origin, the result is putting the lake on a limited lifeline. No oxygen = no fish = no visitors = no good. When the catching’s slow, so are the tourists.
A half-hour in, and the secondary tale gets some time, with science marching in and trying to control the lake’s giant salvinia infestation (and the weevils that feed on it). One of the talking-head experts claims the dense mats of growth can expand to 40 square miles in 3 months. “A very hardy plant. Difficult to kill.” Terms like bio-control are probably something the town residents never heard spoken of until the problem got too big.
Actually, my comments are more than you learn about the lake situation than are referenced in the 82-minute film. And that’s fine, because Uncertain relies less on being a environmental statement than it does being a poetic study of the men we meet. You won’t find out the results (of the eradication effort, or much else) in an end-credit scroll, although you can learn more about them here.
The filmmakers thoughtfully rotate between life ruminations by an attempting-to-get-sober and trying-to-escape-town Zach, the hunter (Wayne Smith) being foiled by Mister Ed (an elusive boar with nine lives), and the 74-year-old Henry Lewis, now a newly reborn Christian and still well-weathered fisherman. A mournful, banjo/violin-infused score by Daniel Hart, with an effect sound design by Jacob Ribicoff, help feed the light symbolism the film offers, comparing the impending death of the lake with the problems of its tattered citizens. They are far from perfect individuals (as snippets of old police tapes and other crime photographs and news clippings attest), hopeful in finding retribution and personal forgiveness for their past mistakes.
An official selection at this year’s Tribeca Film Festival (where it world premiered) and Hot Docs, the film is the first feature for the British ex-patriot McNicol and the Chicago-born Sandilands (both are longtime owners of Lucid Inc., a Seattle-based commercial/communication entity and documentary film studio, and recently have been added to the roster of Ridley Scott & Associates), after each had edited, photographed, produced, and/or directed short documentaries for the last decade. They have been working together since 2008’s The Plane, which won an award at the Leeds International Film Festival.
Elias Savada is a movie copyright researcher, critic, craft beer geek, and avid genealogist based in Bethesda, Maryland. He helps program the Spooky Movie International Movie Film Festival, and previously reviewed for Film Threat and Nitrate Online. He is an executive producer of the new horror film German Angst and co-author, with David J. Skal, of Dark Carnival: the Secret World of Tod Browning.