Uncle John. 2015. Directed by Steven Piet. Screenplay by Erik Crary & Piet.
Starring John Ashton, Alex Moffat, Jenna Lyng, Ronnie Gene Blevins, Cynthia Baker, Andy Cameron, Adria Dawn, Tim Decker, Don Forston, Janet Gilmme, Gary Houston Matt Kozlowski, & Ashleigh LaThrop. Uncle John Productions.
Not Rated. 113 minutes.
Digital editing technician, cinematographer and first time director Steven Piet has really done a fascinating job with the double-plotted Uncle John – a true slow burning mystery with doses of both the thriller genre, as well as, surprisingly enough, some romance. Strangely, these two pieces of the puzzle weave together into what becomes a veritable creepy thrill ride, mysterious and murky. With high praise from one of my favourite directors, David Lynch (he says it stuck with him days after watching), this was a film I knew needed to be seen.
But not only is this a smoldering mystery-thriller with some romance mixed in, Uncle John has a psychological angle, a strange unsettling feeling almost from the beginning. Piet and cinematographer Mike Bove create a natural looking movie that has an undercurrent of tension running through every last frame. Added to that, Adam Robl and Shawn Sutta bring a beautiful score to the table, which gives certain scenes a dreamy, lighter-than-air feeling. All the pieces mould together into a near perfect pastiche of paranoia, rural life, secrets, and plenty emotion.
In a little rural town, John (John Ashton) is a very well-liked older man whose carpentry skills are much appreciated. Except when we first meet John, he’s just killed a man named Dutch (Laurent Soucie). Dutch was a terrible, mean sort of fella. Nobody in town went untouched by his trouble. But nobody would suspect John of murdering the man. That is, nobody except for Dutch’s crazy, drunk brother Danny (Ronnie Gene Blevins); he seems to believe John, or someone close to him, has done the deed. As time goes by, Danny becomes more and more convinced it was John, and only John.
Meanwhile, in Chicago, John’s nephew Ben (Alex Moffat), whom he raised after his mother died/father split, works at a 3D design company. He meets a co-worker named Kate (Jenna Lyng) and falls for her. Only she isn’t keen on dating co-workers.
One day, after an impromptu trip back to the country for Ben’s favourite donuts, he and Kate show up to see Uncle John. With so much going on in John’s head and around him, trying to keep out of hot water for the murder of Dutch, the trip becomes something more than any of them could’ve expected. And with Danny lurking around, it’s only a matter of time before something tragic will happen.
The bridging of a romantic subplot with the main plot of the murder, which precipitates a thriller, is incredibly interesting. When the film starts out you imagine it’s going to take on the trappings of any other mysterious thriller. However, woven between everything is this plot involving Uncle John’s nephew, who happens to meet a lovely woman at his office and starts falling for her. This converges with John’s predicament – the murder we witness at the outset of the story – and everything becomes connected, in a violently tragic sense. Some reviews have lambasted Piet’s film as taking too long for the double plots to join up, but I found the slow build-up works incredibly well. The plots play out at a steady pace, taking their time to open up and bloom. Then finally, they merge to make things even more thrilling than before.
Particularly, I’m a fan of movies that don’t have to throw everything out at you through expository dialogue. Whereas the romance plot with Ben and Kate is fairly straightforward, the plot involving John, Dutch, their history and the murder all comes out in cryptic portions, casually through conversation everything gets revealed. Even the romantic scenes with Ben and Kate are subtle, as it isn’t the typical ‘two people immediately fall in bed together’ sort of relationship; it takes on the form of a true-to-life situation instead of the wildly unrealistic dating in so many movies. So it’s nice to see writing that isn’t so typical and cliche in that sense, plus the main chunk of the film’s mystery-thriller aspects are subdued and their impact is much more profound than if things were laid out on the table plainly.
Note: the last few minutes of the film have a wonderfully written parallel between John and the people in Kate’s family whom she describes as crazy, which is some of the best writing in any finale of any movie I’ve seen in a long time. Just so well-written that it’s undeniably awesome.
Best of all are the actors involved. All four of the main characters we spend time with are performed to perfection. Both Alex Moffat as Ben and Jenna Lyng as Kate provide the necessary chemistry for their onscreen relationship, as they’re co-workers and friends but obviously something more will likely come out of it – even if we don’t see their complete story by the end of the film, you can imagine them developing a strong, lasting relationship together. The way they speak to one another, especially on the part of Ben who has the strongest feelings, we gain such an emotional connection to them. So much so that once things get real thrilling and tense in the final half hour everything feels massively heightened.
Furthermore, Ronnie Gene Blevins as Danny is quietly menacing, a troubled man with a paranoid mind, but really not all that paranoid – mostly, he’s a suspicious character. And rightfully so. Although, the complexities of the situation involving his brother and John make it difficult to fully side with him in any way. Blevins is a solid actor, and he was the perfect choice for the role of Danny. He brings that quiet nature to the character and it makes him more threatening, right up to the point where we realize exactly what he’s up to.
Finally, John Ashton gives a thoughtful, subdued performance as the titular John. From the first time we see him there is a nervous tension about his neck, which obviously stems from those initial scenes where he kills Dutch, gets rid of the body and so on. These quiet performances, like that of Blevins as well, they help the story and the subplots get into our head in such a visceral way. John’s pensive behaviour is extremely watchable, as his face almost emotes everything we need to know about the character. The looks off to one side where he’s running through every scenario in his head, trying to make sure he’ll make it out of suspicion, and the way he stares off at his darkened barn, Ashton draws us towards the character he plays and keeps us interested at every turn.
An absolute 5-star film. The directorial choices by Piet and the cinematography of Bove are an excellent pairing, as even in the most mundane of scenes we’re caught on their hooks, they draw us along through the motions and around the next corner it always seems as if there’ll be something devastating. So that eventually, once the devastation rears its head, the way it crashes into the viewer makes for a bigger splash. I was never entirely sure how the film would end, which is great because I kept on guessing. Even more, the guessing lingers with you, as the outcome of the events in the finale aren’t clear to us, so anything could happen in this story after the credits finish rolling. But the juxtaposition of two vastly different actions in the last 15 minutes is so heavy, so beautiful in a twisted sense, that it rocked my world. Absolutely one of the greatest films of 2015. Currently, as of this writing, it’s on Netflix Canada. Check it out while you still can, and stick with it all the way. The reward is beyond worth the time.