SXSW Film Review – Uncle John
Uncle John (2015) starts off with a fantastic opening sequence. Accompanied by a voiceover reciting scripture and describing the likes of hellfire, we see images of dusty back roads, expansive countryside, and the eerie calmness of a small lake. Then, we see a murder take place. The combination of imagery, dialogue, and music creates a haunting and unnerving first scene, something akin to what the Coen Brothers have become famous for. It’s so good that it works almost as a detriment to the rest of the film. Director Steven Piet (who cowrote the screenplay with Erik Crary) scores so well at the beginning that everything afterward never hits that the same high point again.
Here is a story about secrets and lies. Darkness is hidden under a guise of normality not just from the people in the periphery, but also from the main characters themselves. If there is one thing that Piet does very well, it’s establishing a menacing tone and using that to create tension. Utilizing beautiful cinematography from Mike Bove and subtle but effective music by Adam Robl and Shawn Sutta, Piet does a successful job at always keeping us on our toes. The plot has the familiar dressings of a crime drama, but the factors at work are done well enough to keep us engaged.
As the investigation of the murder commences (starting as a missing persons report), suspicions circle around John (John Ashton). John is an elderly man working as a carpenter, passing time hanging out at the local café or helping fix broken cabinets. On the surface, John is a regular hardworking, blue-collar guy. But the ties he has with the missing person draws the attention of Danny (Ronnie Gene Blevins) the brother of said person. As Danny’s curiosity and anger builds toward John, John has to decide to either notify the authorities or take matters into his own hands to prevent anything bad happening to him or his family.
The dynamic between John and Danny is one of the strongest aspects here. John Ashton is excellent in the titular role. He is constantly weary, but is that authentic or is he putting up a front to cover his true intentions? Casting an older actor for the character was the right choice. With heavy lines on his face, John carries a lifetime of emotions with him. That’s put to use when he has to go through uncomfortable confrontations with Danny. Ronnie Gene Blevins is not given much to work with, and he only pops up out of the blue every now and then, but he gives Danny enough heft to make him more than a one-note character. The main tension is between these two men, but Piet’s direction and the acting by Ashton and Blevins makes it click like a ticking time bomb.
We’re invested so much into John and Danny that when a second plot thread emerges, it’s nowhere near as compelling. The secondary story involves John’s nephew Ben (Alex Moffat) who lives in the city and works in animation. Ben has eyes for Kate (Jenna Lyng) the newest producer on staff. Both Ben and Kate have had troubles in their love lives, but it’s obvious there is an attraction even if all we get of their romance are a few stints at a bar and the occasional flirtatious glance.
Ben and Kate’s relationship has potential for development. Alex Moffat and Jenna Lyng make a nice pairing on screen, and the laughs they share feel genuine most of the time. But contrasted against the murder mystery between John and Danny, they unfortunately fall to the wayside. That’s not a fault of theirs. It’s as though Piet wants to tell two different stories but wasn’t sure which one to go with, so he went with both. I would have been interested in either one as a fleshed out narrative, but combined together the match doesn’t fit right. We’ll have one scene with Ben and Kate joking around and looking deeply into each other eyes, and in the very next we watch John anxiously anticipate a face off with Danny. Sadly, I wasn’t as interested with what happens between Ben and Kate. The tone flips flops between the two sides, and when they finally converge at the climactic scene, the editing comes off as strange and baffling.
Uncle John asks if we really know our loved ones and what they’ve done to get to their place in life. We’ve been taught to respect our elders and listen to what they have to say. Well, what if our elders came from the wrong side of the tracks and did some questionable things? Fascinating themes are brought to the table, but within this context, our focus gets diverted toward a romance that could never have kept up with the rest of the pack. Technically, the production has a lot going for it, even if certain parts don’t mesh together perfectly. It’s like a double feature squished into a single film.