We make millions of decisions everyday, any one of which might prove to be the linchpin of some unexpected outcome that changes everything forever. Life is full of those moments which, upon reflection, make you think: what if...? Or: if only...?
David Siegel and Scott McGehee's Uncertainty, (opening in limited release and via VOD Friday, 11.13.09) comes at the idea in an ingenious and engaging way. A partially improvised film, this intriguing drama follows a young couple on a day when they might have chosen one of two courses of action -- and takes them through the twists and turns of each decision.
Kate (Lynn Collins) and Bobby (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) are a couple undecided on what to do on one particular day in New York. So they stand in the middle of the Brooklyn Bridge and flip a coin. When it lands, they run in opposite directions. But when each one gets to the opposite end of the bridge -- in Brooklyn and Chinatown -- he/she finds the other one there.
One version of the couple is color-coded yellow, the other green, as a clever and unobtrusive device for keeping your place in the story. Siegel and McGehee spend the rest of the film bouncing back and forth between the two differently hued couples, with drastically different stories unfolding.
The Brooklyn version is caught up quietly in a domestic drama: Kate, who comes from a large and extended Latino family, is pregnant but hasn't told her parents or anyone else, other than Bobby. But she and Bobby are still a new enough couple that, while they've talked about the pregnancy, they're not sure how to proceed -- are they serious enough to get married and raise a child?
Along the way, they find a stray dog and make the decision to take it along. As Kate and Bobby head for a family celebration at her parents' house, they're uncertain what to do with their own future, convinced that it serves no one's interest to bring this unfolding personal drama to the attention of her family.
The Chinatown version starts with the pair in a taxi, where they find a lost cell phone. Bobby notes how upset he was when he left his phone in a cab; he never got it back. So, rather than give the phone to the cabbie to turn in, they start calling numbers on the phone, hoping to find the owner.
They finally reach someone who seems to put them in touch with the owner, and they arrange a meeting outside a Chinatown restaurant. But when the would-be owner appears, another car pulls up and guns him down before they can make contact. Bobby and Kate flee -- but find themselves being electronically stalked by two different parties, both of whom claim to own the phone and agree to Bobby's demand for a large cash reward in exchange for the phone.
The film ping-pongs from there, introducing new elements, straying off on tangents, yet finding resonance between the two strands of the story. In each case, Kate and Bobby are forced to test the strength of their not-quite-cemented relationship, to find unexpected resilience in themselves and in each other.
The bond is more obviously firm in the thriller plot -- they are, after all, running for their lives together. But the Brooklyn half of the film has its own share of tension: the smiling face the couple has to put on the relationship in front of her family, even as they privately wrestle with the decision they'll have to make about the future.
The thriller half of the film has a certain headlong quality to it that helps it skip over the logic or specifics of the story. Siegel and McGehee submerge an average couple in an adventure for which they seem overmatched -- yet their instincts and resourcefulness keep them one step ahead of the malevolent force that's on their trail.
Indeed, the dynamic quality of that half seems to overtake the film; at times, you wish the writer-directors had focused on that story and found ways to make it work in a fleshed-out version: to create a more complex (and believable) plot that pulls together. Still, the Brooklyn section builds its own tension -- nothing is more suspenseful than family interactions when secrets are part of the mix, right?
Gordon-Levitt and Collins have the natural ease of a couple that connects, without that glue of long-term commitment. The pair was given scene parameters and dynamics, but improvised their dialogue. Yet there's rarely that "what do I say next?" quality to it; there's a natural flow to their conversation, a sense of being in the moment that feels as if they're living it, rather than making it up.
Uncertainty ultimately doesn't go where you expect it to -- no Twilight Zone convergence, no suddenly looping back on itself. It's a fascinating experiment that also happens to be an interesting and highly watchable movie.
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