A lone boatman glides over dark waterways, dwarfed by cypress draped in Spanish moss and surrounded by a symphony of nighttime sounds. His flashlight shines on another lone boatman, who is passed out in the hull of his skiff. With the beam directed full on the man’s face, the first boatman proceeds to loudly mimic an owl’s call. Thus begins this strange but insightful documentary, at turns matter-of-factly tragic and bizarrely optimistic about human perseverance.
The tiny, remote town of Uncertain, Texas (population 94), lies just over the state border with Louisiana. (The dilapidated shanties along the shores of Caddo Lake are exactly what you’d expect to see on a Louisiana swamp tour.) The lake, formerly a fisherman’s paradise, is pretty much the town’s only source of income. But an invasive plant species has begun to spread over the water’s surface, robbing the water of oxygen and killing off the fish supply. Thus far, the town’s efforts to destroy the plant have proven unsuccessful. The lake’s possible demise serves as a fitting backdrop for directors Anna Sandilands and Ewan McNicol’s compelling film of pathos and intentions.
The town sheriff says Uncertain is particularly attractive to convicts because of its proximity to the state border, which might account for Wayne’s presence. A middle-aged ex-con, Wayne is in recovery from drug addiction. He’s coping by getting in touch with his Native American roots and hunting. Texas law allows ex-cons to own antique guns, and Wayne has mounted a night vision scope on his. He takes hunting and tracking seriously, dressing in elaborate camouflage, endeavoring to eliminate his human scent, and building increasingly complicated canopies. He is obsessed with taking down a specific alpha-boar, whose horselike snout has earned it the name Mr. Ed. Wayne believes Mr. Ed’s aggressive nature keeps other animals out of his territory and that the beast seems to know what Wayne is up to and outwit him. Their competition provides comic relief.
Zach is just 21. He used to live with his mother, but now that she’s been hospitalized for mental illness, he spends his days alone playing X-Box and most nights in the bar. He has type 1 diabetes and knows that if he doesn’t stop drinking his days are numbered, but he can’t seem to get control of his alcohol cravings.
Henry, 74, recently lost his wife of more than 50 years and, before that, one of his daughters. He works as a lake guide, and he spent much of his time fishing until the lake weed caused him to be out of work, and he strains his relationships with his children and friends by borrowing money to keep his new girlfriend happy.
As the film delves deeper into the tragic events that have marked each of the men’s lives, their diverse stories reveal common themes of loss, pain, and struggles with internal demons. There is, as well, a shared determination to move forward as a better, stronger person. Yet all three seem to recognize that this is an endeavor of sustained perseverance on their part. Life is taken one day at a time.
Through the evocative cinematography, the filmmakers draw constant comparisons between the men’s stories and the plight of the lake, which grows increasingly congested with the weed as the documentary progresses. Both the men and the lake appear to be struggling with overwhelming problems for which there are no ready solutions. Yet, despite their vulnerability, the three are also resilient, and therein lies some hope in an uncertain future.