Due to the onslaught of environmental documentaries that prioritize urgency over intelligence, Laura Dunn‘s “The Unforeseen,” an inquisitive, elegant rendering of the battle between land development and dwindling natural resources in Austin, might get lost in the shuffle. And what a shame that would be, for Dunn’s refreshingly thorough look at the encroachment of capital on untouched land is smart enough not to treat its subject as a horror show. The film is more sobered than alarming, yet it’s hardly defeatist. An impressionist’s portrait of contemporary American economic life, “The Unforeseen” is for nature both a paean and an elegy, and for contemporary American nonfiction a challenge, in both scope and aesthetic.
Too legitimately discursive to be merely poetic and too visually restful and unexpected to fall in line with the usual talking-heads issue docs, “The Unforeseen” makes for invigorating viewing; it’s a provocative tapestry that, while occasionally reveling in abstract digression, never loses sight of the complicated human, political, and historical issues at its core. Though there’s a clear narrative trajectory–that of the initial success and eventual ignominious bankruptcy of reviled local land developer Gary Bradley, responsible for Austin’s most profitable subdivision–Dunn takes an unconventional approach, complicating her own process by cross-hatching various threads with ease, and using facts rather than polemics to buoy her storytelling.
Gone are the policy-made-easy gambits of other films, which boil events down to a series of simple confrontations; the narrative of “The Unforeseen” is one of various tendrils, spreading out like the water pipes (or capillaries, as the film proposes in one of its slightly overreaching moments) that run underneath a once-untouched 4,000-acre countryside since it turned into a uniform series of overdeveloped suburbs. Moving from the personal (Bradley’s bio, from a farming childhood to a financially ambitious career) to the community-based (a group of Austin environmentalists triumphing in the courtroom over developers whose actions would disrupt and pollute the pristine natural reservoirs at nearby Barton Creek) to the statewide (the overturning of that triumph following George W. Bush’s “Take Back Texas” ascension to governorship), Dunn treats environmentalists and developers not as good and evil but rather as integral pieces in the puzzle that has become the American landscape, segmented and jigsawed into anonymity.
With the keen, reserved eye of Austin’s own cinematographer Lee Daniel (who created some of recent cinema’s most dynamically humane images with his exquisite, no-nonsense work on Richard Linklater‘s “Before Sunrise” and “Before Sunset“), “The Unforeseen” finds beauty even in the most compromised spaces and people.
One reason for the film’s distinct visual poetry (showcased in a mix of video and 16 mm) might be the force of its guiding light, Terrence Malick, who basically commissioned the project in response to what he saw happening to Texas’s natural resources. Indeed there are occasional shots of glistening cobwebs, slow-motion underwater swimmers, and sunlight streaming through fog-shrouded trees that will inevitably recall Malick’s work, yet Dunn’s film isn’t a simple retreat into nature, nor is it a reducible portrait of greed (an emotional outburst from Bradley at the end is captured with true sympathy, even awe). Instead it’s a document for posterity, diagnosing our moment with refreshing pragmatism. As merciless and propulsive as rushing water, Dunn’s film is constantly moving forward, all the way into its stunning final images, which map out our country’s soul with mournful deliberation.
Michael Koresky is co-founder and editor of Reverse Shot and the managing editor and staff writer of the Criterion Collection.]