Reviews

Uncertainty: A Meditation on Choice in New York City

Uncertainty may not be deeply profound, but McGhee and Siegel, and their lead actors, use the film to explore the power of chance and choice in a subtle and emotionally compelling way.


Uncertainty

Director: Scott McGhee and David Siegel
Cast: Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Lynn Collins, Assumpta Serna, Olivia Thirlby
Distributor: IFC Films
Studio: IFC Films
Release Date: 2010-04-20

Musings on the roles of chance and choice in the making, or unmaking, of a life have animated countless works of art and letters. These matters are fascinating because they pose questions of control: how much of our lives do we hold in our own hands and how much is driven by what we do not, or cannot, make ourselves. At times, it seems that even the smallest choices have import for who we become, and at others it appears as if we control nothing of ourselves. Between these two poles is ample grist for the dramatic mill. In Uncertainty, writer-directors Scott McGhee and David Siegel place their main characters, Bobby (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) and Kate (Lynn Collins), in two different narratives that explore both the opportunities and the limits of individual choice, suggesting that control is a relative and contingent, rather than an absolute, condition.

The film begins with Kate and Bobby having an oblique conversation near the base of the Brooklyn Bridge about what to do about some problem, and at this point, it could be a matter of what to do with their day or maybe something deeper. Reading between the lines, it seems clear that they are having a conversation wherein different choices, both the trivial and the serious, are being playfully turned on each other by both the writers and the characters.

They begin walking across the bridge towards Manhattan, and at the halfway point, Bobby, to Kate's surprise, takes out a coin and offers to flip it as a way of "deciding". Kate expresses shock at this idea, but Bobby does it anyway and following the flip, he takes off running back to Brooklyn while she runs into Manhattan. At this point, the film splits into two stories, "Yellow" in Manhattan and "Green" in Brooklyn, the former beginning as Kate joins Bobby in a yellow cab and the latter as Bobby hops into a green mini-van with Kate. The two sides of the narrative are also coded by the clothes worn by the leads, Bobby's green and white striped shirt giving way to a yellow and black t-shirt in Manhattan, while Kate goes from a yellow and white patterned sun dress to a blue and green one in Brooklyn.

In "Yellow", Bobby finds a smartphone in the back of the cab, and after deflecting Kate's advice to give it to the cabbie, he begins calling numbers from the log to see if he can find the owner. He gets a call back from someone claiming to be “Dimitri”, the owner of the phone. They make plans for the phone's return at a restaurant in Chinatown. While waiting for “Dimitri” to show up, another call comes in from someone else claiming to own the phone. Bobby tells him that someone else has already asserted ownership. The new claimant gets angry, and Bobby tells him to come to the restaurant and work it out with the other guy. During this conversation, the first caller arrives and is shot by an Asian-looking man in a silver car.

Kate and Bobby run from the scene and into the subway. During their flight, they field a text message from a “George Perez”, who also wants the phone, and additional calls from the other “Dimitri”. After realizing that they are being tracked, and getting a message from Perez offering $500,000 for the phone, they turn the device off and decide to turn it over to the police. While waiting in the City Hall police station, a Google search suggests that the “George Perez” in question may be the corrupt head of the New York State Lottery. Though, as Bobby says a few times to Kate and to himself, there are probably a lot of George Perezes in New York. Ultimately, Kate pulls Bobby aside to talk about a plan to get “Dimitri”, clearly the more dangerous competitor, to pay the $500,000 offered by “George Perez”.

From this point, "Yellow" becomes a cat-and-mouse game between “Dimitri” and the young couple. The parallel story in "Green" derives its drama from far more mundane matters. Here, instead of a phone implicated in a criminal conspiracy, Kate and Bobby find a sweet-tempered stray dog, “Tiger”, and the central tension comes not from threats to life and limb, but from a Fourth of July barbecue at Kate's family home in Queens. Not only does Kate have a strained relationship with her mom, Sylvia (Assumpta Serna), but the family is collectively dealing with feelings of grief and loss from multiple sides. This narrative is less about plot and is more a slice of life story structured around the holiday gathering.

One reading of Uncertainty is that Bobby and Kate's lives hinge on one choice: whether to go to Brooklyn or Manhattan, and once that choice is made, all else falls into place. However, a better case can be made that, underneath the surface appeal of this interpretation, is a more nuanced and interesting comparison of how chance and choice might influence the course of their lives.

In making that comparison, it is striking how much more control Kate and Bobby have over what happens to them in "Yellow" than in "Green". This may seem counterintuitive. After all, in Brooklyn and Queens, they are dealing with familiar people and circumstances, while in Manhattan they are caught in a web of corruption and criminality not of their own making and about which they know little.

Despite their imperfect information, it is easy to track every turn where the couple makes a choice that pulls them deeper into trouble. Retrieving the phone. Handling the return themselves. Calling numbers in the log. Leaving call back information. Not turning the device over to the police. Extorting “Dimitri” instead of just giving him the phone. Blowing off Perez. At any of these points, they could have made choices that would have materially changed what happens next in the narrative.

By contrast, despite the comfort level of the events in “Green”, family is something that one cannot choose. While Bobby and Kate have chosen to be together, what comes with that is not something that either can help. When someone dies, or gets ill, both of which are the case for Kate's family, or applies pressure or makes demands, you don't have any choice but to address your relationships with others in the familial network.

What this comparison suggests is that choice and chance are not opposites, but are complementary forces. We get to exercise control, but not always in circumstances of our own making, and when we do make choices that change our circumstances – going to Manhattan instead of Brooklyn, or vice versa, for example – we may not be able to choose what happens next. Or maybe we can. Everything is contingent.

There is no suggestion of alternate realities in Uncertainty, no tension around whether the two versions of the couple will cross paths or meet, but there are two scenes that suggest both how close and how far their different lives are from each other.

In one, both couples watch a Fourth of July fireworks display across the East River from each other. “Yellow” Bobby and Kate do so anxiously, and alone, on the roof of an apartment building, while the “Green” iteration do their viewing from a park with family, friends, and dog. The emotional tones of the two stories are brought into stark relief by this beautifully rendered moment.

At the end of the film, “Green” Kate and Bobby meander across the Brooklyn Bridge towards Manhattan, while their “Yellow” dopplegangers make their way in the other direction on the Williamsburg Bridge. Both couples pause on the way to ask what to do next, concluding that all they can do is “keep going”. Less emotionally resonant than the different views of the fireworks, this scene does underscore how closely connected the two worlds of the narrative are, and the thin margins that might separate a quiet day with family from one where you are running for your life.

The most significant weakness to Uncertainty is that it does not always seem as if the two versions of the couple are, in fact, the same people. While allowing that part of the point is that the choices you make shape who you become, it is hard to imagine the level-headed, low key pair in “Green” making the kinds of choices that their other numbers make in “Yellow”. Even given that $500,000 would seem to represent a lot of money to them, neither Bobby nor Kate in Brooklyn and Queens seems financially desperate, or grasping, enough to take the risks that the other pair does in Manhattan. Having written that, in “Yellow” both Gordon-Levitt and Collins play their characters well as ordinary people in over their heads, but just smart enough and lucky enough not to get killed for the choices they make.

The IFC Films DVD comes with a collection of ephemera related to the film, including a TV ad, a theatrical trailer, a stills gallery, and audition footage for the lead actors. The most substantive extra is a script to scene comparison that allows viewers to see how the film was made by allowing for improvised dialogue within a scripted plot.

Uncertainty may not, ultimately, be deeply profound, but McGhee and Siegel, and their lead actors, use the film to explore the power of chance and choice in a subtle and emotionally compelling way.

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