Overview: A documentary about Uncertain, Texas, a tiny town on the border between Texas and Louisiana where an invasive weed is threatening the way of life. The film follows three men trying to make it in—or out—of Uncertain. Lucid; 2015; Not Rated; 82 minutes.
Boggy: As Uncertain begins, it’s easy to question whether you’ve (once again) made a mistake and turned on a horror movie when you meant to watch a documentary. Scenes of a swamp at night, cicadas at full volume in the background, a deer carcass being drained of its blood, a fisherman searching in the dark—these are presented with no explanation. By the time the title screens rolls around, however, it’s clear that this is, in fact, a documentary, and that these scenes were shown first to give the viewer a sense of life in Uncertain and to give it a feeling of “otherness”—a feeling that will be transformed by the end as you get to know a few of Uncertain’s inhabitants.
The town tells its story: There’s no commentary in this film—no narration at all, in fact. Uncertain, Texas is explained by the people who live there, all of whom have their own unique struggles (or “demons,” if I were to be trite) and their own unique philosophies, but who share a connection to this dying town and its way of life. Rather than a narrator projecting his or her own notions onto the people of this town, the people of the town tell their story. Editing is the only hint of the filmmaker, and it is expertly done.
Because Uncertain’s future is just that: uncertain. Due to the encroachment of a non-native species, the lake that once drew vacationers and fishermen is now clogged with a thick vegetation that can grow to cover miles of lake surface in a few short months. Boats that once cut through water instead cut through a carpet of green—certainly not appealing to tourists. The town itself is in the middle of nowhere, and feels drab and swampy. Even ominous. But this place offers a life to is residents, a life that many would not be able to sustain elsewhere, precisely because it is so cut off. If the town dies, what happens to them?
You’d have to be lost to find it: As the sheriff explains early in the film, Uncertain is a good place to go if you’re trying to hide. It sits on the border between Texas and Louisiana, and so attracts people looking to get out of a particular jurisdiction for one reason or another. Thus, it is home to ex-convicts and recovering addicts, as well as long-time residents. We meet three of these during the film. One, an ex addict who served time for assault and DWI, has started a new life there. He hunts, and the film follows his particular vendetta against a wild hog, but he also spends a good portion of the film reflecting on his past actions and their effects on those around him, including his son and the boy whose car he hit while driving under the influence. Another is a fisherman, who years ago killed a man who came at him with a crow bar, and who struggles still to come to terms with taking a life. He also still grieves for his wife, who died several years ago, and spends his days fishing (his career was as a fishing guide out on the lake). For these two men, Uncertain was and is a place to start afresh.
The film also follows a skinny kid of maybe 20 who represents the flip side of the Uncertain story. He didn’t come to Uncertain to start over and atone for past misdeeds. He, instead, is a product of Uncertain, and is hampered by its situation rather than liberated by it. With a mother institutionalized, and no economic opportunity or interest in hunting, he spends his days playing Minecraft and drinking in a rundown trailer, to the point where he starts a video diary about cutting back on alcohol and is told by his doctor that his health is at a critical point (he is diabetic). He finally scrapes together $100, packs his meager belongings, and goes to Austin, where he struggles to find work. But at least in Austin there is opportunity for one as young and unblemished as he is.
Interwoven with these stories is the ever-present worry about the lake. We learn that a biologist has proposed a solution better than spraying: weevils. But the solution will cost millions. Why would the state of Texas spend millions on a place like Uncertain, home of poor people, addicts, and felons? The ongoing discussion of saving the lake underscores the tenuous position of Uncertain’s residents, who are all too aware of the illusion of stability. One overdose, one heated argument, one phone call to the police, can turn their world upside down.
How to handle uncertainty?: Each of the film’s subjects offers their own philosophy, though I doubt they would describe it as such; they’re just talking about their life, their fears, and their thoughts. The fisherman knows that he has done bad things, but he knows he has done good as well, and he hopes that the good outweighs the bad so that he can be reunited with his wife and children in Heaven one day. The ex-convict also dwells on his past, every day trying to not be the man who ran into a kid while driving drunk. His philosophy is one of atonement. There is no escaping his own guilt, but he can live rightly—he communes with and respects nature, finding God there, and he spends time with his son, whose childhood he missed. The skinny kid is a nihilist, who believes that only you can make a change in your life, and that even then you might not be alive in ten years (“or might not afford to,” he adds—his diabetes medication costs money, something he rarely has). Finally, we see the biologist in his lab, peering gleefully through a microscope. His hope is in the weevils—and he’s seeing a whole lot of them.
This is the human experience: As I said, this film offers no narration or commentary, but it is riveting nonetheless and gently guides the viewer to not only understanding Uncertain, Texas, but to thinking about circumstance, guilt, absolution, and their own notions of normalcy. It begins with the swamp, with a fisherman searching in the dark—and really, isn’t that what we’re all doing? Searching for certainty in a murky and random life?
Overall: One thing about this film—which I view as a strength and others may see as a weakness—is that you get out of it what you put into it. An idle viewer may find the documentary pointless or depressing, but I assure you it is neither. It is really an exploration of metaphysics, and a demonstration that some questions are universal.
Featured Image: Lucid