For those growing up in weatherbeaten West Texas, someone says early in Laura Dunn’s The Unforeseen, “nature becomes God.” A God that hands out abundance at times, to be sure, but also one who snatches away crops, farms, and livelihoods in a single wrathful whirlwind. To master one’s plot of land is the cornerstone of the American dream—the merest taste of God’s dominion. And yet that pride in possession is founded on the delusion that ownership equals control. Hold that deed up to a dam burst and see if the flood waters part.
The sanctity of private property versus the long-term health of the land—in Austin, the site of Dunn’s extraordinary new documentary, the battle has taken on the trappings of holy war. An Alamo of blue-state liberalism besieged by the reddest of red-state doctrinaires, the Texas capital is literally an oasis: a river-fed island of green atop a precious fresh-water aquifer, surrounded by arid scrub. As the setting for a showdown between tree-huggers and flag-wavers—which happened when a sprawling 1990s development deal threatened the city’s beloved Barton Springs—it’s as metaphorically rich as the Wendell Berry poem that gives The Unforeseen its title.
True, The Unforeseen—a haunting meditation on hubris and the folly of claiming rights over something as elemental (and temperamental) as the environment—can be seen as part of a small but growing canon of ecological-alarm documentaries, a genre broad and urgent enough to encompass the PowerPoint apocalypse of An Inconvenient Truth, the countdown-to-Armageddon jeremiad of The 11th Hour, and the mountaintop-removal broadside of Black Diamonds. But the qualities that make The Unforeseen ineffective as a shrieking call to arms—among them a tone that’s less hectoring than contemplative, and an unusual sympathy for the opposition—make it vastly more absorbing as a movie.
Austin, 1972: The cowboys and hippies are making peace, not war; short-haired, clean-shaven Willie Nelson is gearing up for conquest at Armadillo World Headquarters; the city looms as a green mecca, so much so that the late, blessedly tart-tongued Ann Richards jokes of wanting to fence off the city from outsiders. Outsiders like West Texas refugee Gary Bradley, a high-flying wheeler-dealer headquartered in a castle. “Austin looked perfect to me,” Bradley says, then amends himself: “. . . in terms of a place to develop.”
And so he did. Bradley struck pay dirt in the booming 1980s with the Circle C Ranch subdivision, 4,000 acres of prime Austin hill country. Its chief selling point, besides beauty, was water: The land was linked to the same porous limestone aquifer as the Barton Springs swimming hole, where generations of locals and kids (including executive producer Robert Redford) communed with nature. Water, Bradley tells the camera, in terms that Chinatown‘s Noah Cross might appreciate, “is a God thing. The rest I can handle.”
Such a statement is a lightning rod hoisted to the heavens. In the poetic voiceover that opens the film, Wendell Berry bemoans “the deserted prospect of the modern mind/where nothing lived or happened that had not been foreseen.” What had been foreseen, he intones with the force of prophecy, “was the coming of the Stranger with Money.” Using archival footage and modern-day interviews, sometimes contrasted to poignant effect, Dunn lays out what neither Bradley nor his environmentalist foes could foresee: how the collapse of Texas’s deregulated savings-and-loan industry under Reagan and Bush I would force Bradley into bed with new partner Freeport McMoRan, distinguished as “the No. 1 discharger of toxic chemicals in the U.S.”; how a temporary victory by community activists, shepherded by Richards’s vigilance, would be thwarted by her successor—Bush II—and a wily legislative lobbyist named Dick Brown, who didn’t want to appear on camera. (In a stroke of genius, Dunn shows his disembodied hands affixing teensy little bombs to a model warplane.) Most damning of all, an underwater camera records the unforeseen impact of the ensuing developmental havoc on Barton Springs—crystal-clear in 1996, murky and opaque in 2004.
Making her first feature, Austin filmmaker Dunn no doubt included some unnecessary detours for star power’s sake (like the inessential footage of Redford and Nelson). But it’s ultimately the movie’s glacial pace and willingness to let its mind and eye wander that produces its spiritual and intellectual heft—not to mention its atypical visual splendor. The idea for the film came from executive producer Terrence Malick, himself a longtime Austinite, and cinematographer Lee Daniel’s texture-besotted HD/Super 16 imagery evokes the rapturous transcendentalist quality that surfaces in Malick’s own films: the weight of rain on grass, the play of magic-hour light on a creek.
Through its transfixing glimpses of the natural world and an agrarian lifestyle at risk, The Unforeseen ponders nothing less than what happens when we turn our backs on the divine. The movie’s resolution falls like a reckoning: Bradley, seen surveying the Austin skyline from his castle, plummets from public vilification to bankruptcy. In the end, his Xanadu is padlocked, and he resembles no one so much as There Will Be Blood‘s downfallen Daniel Plainview, his own milk shake sucked dry by some mysterious whim of fate.
Dunn takes no pleasure in his free fall—and there’s little vindication any-way. “Barton Springs is a macrocosm of the world in which we now live,” a radio commentator is heard to sigh, as the camera gazes upon unclear water. “Damn, damn, damn.”