You can't fault Scott McGehee and David Siegel for lack of ambition. In writing and directing Uncertainty, the duo didn't merely attempt to crosscut between two simultaneous stories about the same couple of lovebirds, following two ways they could spend their Fourth of July holiday. They also tried to merge into one film a quiet drama of familial routine and an adventure with fantastical thrills. The marriage may have been as ill-fated as one between the Mantagues and the Capulets, but it also shares a reckless, often exhilarating passion.
The film starts off with a young New York City couple, played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Lynn Collins, as they stand on a bridge between Manhattan and Brooklyn, mumbling with no conviction about what they're going to do. The prologue ends with a coin toss--she runs toward Manhattan, he toward Brooklyn, and when they get to the other side, they meed alternate versions of each other. The two stories that follow are identified through dominant colors: yellow for the wild ride through the city's island, green for the pleasant family barbecue,
From the start, it's impossible not to notice the brilliant compositions of the filmmakers and cinematographer Kathy Li (who shot "Paranoid Park" with Christopher Doyle). A smart, angular shot of two of the city's bridges immediately emphasizes the theme of divergent paths. The defining colors of each storyline splash the screen emphatically at some moments, and rest quietly in the background on others.
There have been several films about divergent timelines that fork off based on chance or small decisions. They include Krzysztof Kieslowski's 1981 film Blind Chance and, more popular but less interesting, Sliding Doors, the 1998 film starring Gwyneth Paltrow that obscured any attempts at profundity with its painfully forced writing. The same year as Sliding Doors, Tom Tykwer spun the concept into the high-octane action film Run Lola Run. Uncertainty draws from both Lola's and the more introspective films, perhaps belying an uncertainty (get it?) as to the type of film the filmmakers wanted to make.
In Manhattan, the couple finds a cell phone in a cab, and Gordon-Levitt's character, Bobby, calls some numbers on the phone and leaves messages in an attempt to return it to its owner. However, two different people call him back claiming that the phone is theirs, and the first guy to arrive at the restaurant to retrieve it ends up shot by sinister henchmen. Soon the couple are on the run from sinister criminals with phone-tracking devices and other tricks up their sleeves to get that precious phone back.
In the other possible reality, the couple go to girlfriend Kate's mother's house for an old fashioned dinner with the family. They pick up a dog on the way, but the cute mutt isn't loaded with heroine and/or hunted by high-profile criminals, he's just another example of how lives can change by moments of chance. Because they aren't running from villains, this timeline is a great opportunity for the characters to expand on their backgrounds and discuss issues like Kate's pregnancy and her sister's desire to follow in her footsteps and become an actress. The family members feel warm and authentic, so it's unfortunate that the whole timeline feels like second-fiddle due to the excitement of the yellow story.
By choosing to make one of the storylines a thriller, the filmmakers cornered themselves into the requirements of the genre. The goal of these scenes is to get the adrenaline flowing, to gradually build the tension and raise the stakes. But the thrills vanish every time they cut to the other, more mundane potential timeline. Perhaps there simply aren't that many good breaks to take in a story about characters on the run from bad men, especially when it only spans 24 hours. But the moments at which the timelines switch are rarely organic and usually frustrating.
Neither timeline is quite strong enough to carry itself, let alone the film. The chases aren't inept or stunning, lacking the cleverness needed to overcome the film's small budget. The setup trivializes the family picnic because who cares when guys with guns are chasing you? While Gordon-Levitt and Collins are both fine actors, their mushy characters and improvised dialogue eventually grows tiresome. Uncertianty is often interesting, but just as often frustrating.
Uncertainty is a great looking film, and IFC Films' DVD release does it justice with a detailed 16x9 anamorphic transfer letterboxed to the film's original 2.35:1 aspect ratio. There are no compression artifacts, and details in the textures are well rendered well in the characters' hair and clothing as well as background objects.
Some might be put off by the use of low light in some interior and night time scenes, which results in less lively skin tones and vibrant colors than the daylight material. Others will notice some hot exposure points on skin in the outdoor and on-location scenes. But these are all components of the film's aesthetic, faithfully transferred to the DVD.
The DVD includes a 5.1 Dolby Digital surround track of the film's original English soundtrack. It also includes optional subtitles in Spanish and English SDH for the hearing impaired. The audio is clear and focused, even if it won't give your system the toughest workout its ever had.
The film's most thrilling chases largely employ the pulsating, dynamic score, using the rear channels sparingly for ambient effects. The mix is well balanced. Certain lines are difficult to understand, but this has more to do with the actors' naturalistic delivery than any technical issues.
IFC included a nice amount of bonus material for a low-profile title, even if few of the special features are essential.
The most impressive feature is the Script/Scene Comparison, which juxtaposes two different excerpts from the script with the scenes as they appeared in the final cut. The film was written without dialogue so that the actors could find the characters' voices themselves. The comparisons offer a nice insight into the cinematic process.
The audition footage contains a scene between Gordon-Levitt and Collins that was not in the film (probably for the best), in which they argue over gender issues and who bares the responsibilities of parenthood.
The still gallery contains more than 50 photos, but few of them could be called essential. The first and second photos, for example, are identical except for color balance. When a photo gallery already features decidedly low-resolution stills resting in a graphic design border, it doesn't help to include blurry, obtuse shots with no sense of focus.
Finally, the theatrical trailer (anamorphic) and TV spot (4x3 letterboxed), are competent but standard advertisements, similar in theme and content.
If you're uncertain about Uncertainty, there's no need to rush into a purchase. IFC Films has made a quality DVD, so there's no reason to avoid this disc but the film itself. If you're already a fan, make the purchase. If you're merely interested in the concept, a rental will do nicely.
Jeremy Mathews has been subjecting films to his criticism since 2000. He has contributed to several publications, including Film Threat, Salt Lake City Weekly, the Salt Lake Tribune, In Utah This Week and The Wasatch Journal. He also runs the blog The Same Dame and fronts the band NSPS.