‘Uncertain’ Finds the Heart of East Texas in Its Troubled Waters

Tribeca Film Festival

Uncertain, Texas is a town on the edge. It’s quite literally on a border, the one shared by Texas and Louisiana. It’s on the edge of a fragile body of water, Lake Caddo. It’s on the fringe of society, hard to find on a map and inhabited by only 94 people. And it is also on the brink of extinction. The whole economy of the town is built around the lake, its beauty and its abundance of fish a major draw for tourists. Yet in the last few years, an invasive species of plant has begun to fill up the water and destroy the aquatic habitat. A local scientist is trying to develop a natural solution to the problem, but it’s an uphill battle.

Yet filmmakers Ewan McNicol and Anna Sandilands did not come to this small corner of East Texas to make a documentary solely motivated by environmental concerns. Uncertain is primarily a character study of three men, whose struggles with addiction and violence are compared and contrasted to the beauty and brutality of Caddo Lake. Henry is a tourist guide and fisherman, 74 years old and still trying to make sense of life after the passing of his wife of 57 years. Wayne is a boar hunter and an ex-con, only allowed by the state of Texas to use rifles made before 1899 due to his criminal record. Zach is a diabetic young man living out his 20s in his mother’s house, dividing his time between his cats, his X-box and the local bar.

As McNicol and Sandilands get to know these three remarkably open and easygoing men, the darkest moments of their past come to light. Henry and Wayne have both committed great acts of violence in the past, and both Wayne and Zach have struggled with drugs and alcohol. These stories are peeled back one at a time, allowed to emerge naturally. Wayne’s oft-thwarted quest for the head of the local alpha boar, a horse-headed hog he’s dubbed Mr. Ed, drives the plot forward just as his disclosures of tragedy and abuse look to the past. The same is true of Henry and Zach, whose stories mirror each other from the opposite ends of life.

All the while, McNicol and Sandilands keep everything in the symbolic context of Caddo Lake and its creatures. The invasive plants become a powerful metaphor for the sickness of addiction, the dark side of this small and struggling town. The cycles of the natural world are never far from sight. Henry takes catfish from the water just as Wayne looks to control the local boar population. These elements of hunting and fishing recontextualize the stories of violence in the film, casting moments of human weakness and darkness as parts of a larger circle of life rather than errors from which there can be no recovery.

And at the end of the day, the plan for ridding Caddo Lake of its life-threatening affliction is another sort of controlled violence. The weevils are being engineered to tear up the plants as quickly as possible. McNicol and Sandilands position their three subjects as equal parts of a larger community, one which includes the plants and animals alongside the two-legged Texans. This is enhanced by McNicol’s stunning cinematography and Daniel Hart’s expressive musical score, featured most powerfully in the many scenes of the lake itself. They anchor the film in the water and let its narratives spring out. The result is a truly engrossing film, one of the year’s best nonfiction portraits of the natural world.

Daniel is a freelance critic living in Brooklyn. His writing has appeared at Nonfics, The Film Experience, The Brooklyn Rail, Indiewire, and Dok.Revue.