Uncle John Movie Review
Written by Greg Fisher
Released by FilmBuff
Directed by Steven Piet
Written by Erik Crary and Steven Piet
2015, 114 minutes, Not Rated
Released theatrically and on VOD on September 18th, 2015
John Ashton as John
Alex Moffat as Ben
Jenna Lyng as Kate
Ronnie Gene Blevins as Danny
Uncle John may just be one of the best calling cards a first time indie director has made in recent years. Steven Piet jumps from a small background of editing and camera work on television and comes out swinging on this film, which he also co-wrote. It has already become a darling on the festival circuit, and has only picked up steam as it goes into limited release this month.
The plot sounds simple enough: a crime thriller about a murder in a small town, which becomes more complicated when the nephew of the prime suspect comes to town. All of this does disservice to what is ultimately a much nuanced film that defies its crime thriller label. There is no "whodunit". From the first scene, we know the troubled yet amiable titular character committed the crime. What we as an audience watch for is the "why", and to follow the process that gets us there.
John Aston's main claim to fame for most is that he was the only original main cast member to have the sense to steer clear of Beverly Hills Cop III. Truthfully, he's been an actor I always am glad to see show up onscreen. Labeled as a character actor, he plays a certain brand of no nonsense gruffness tinged with a "loveable old bear" likeability that is very appealing. Throw away the Libertarianism, and he may just be the first Ron Swanson. He brings all of this to the role of John, a small-town carpenter and widower cum murderer. From the first shot, we see him slowly following the injured and dying Dutch, and then thoroughly disposing of all evidence of his crime as well as the body. This becomes a theme for the movie. No one ever finds Dutch's body. Evidence of his death is circumstantial at best, but the rumor mill of the town churns it all into a spectacle.
Alex Moffat and Jenna Lyng do a commendable job as John's beloved nephew Ben, who John raised, and Ben's new boss and romantic interest Kate. Their half of the story, starting in the big city and ending in the dusty small town, is a sweet and well played will-they-won't-they romance. The audience roots for them both to find happiness, and feels they deserve it through their hinted at and vaguely outlined patchy pasts, and their story serves as a lighter complement to the tenser scenes involving John. Ronnie Gene Blevins shines slightly stronger as Danny, grieving brother of the deceased Dutch, who is convinced that John is the culprit.
Ultimately, the main character of the movie and the story is the town as a whole. We follow as the rumor mill runs, seeing the story through the words and reactions of its residents. The most fun to watch in this regard is the small group of elderly chatterboxes John eats breakfast with at the local diner. The men delight in passing along stories and rumors, and are kept in check by the no nonsense waitress. I found myself smiling every time a scene opened at their booth.
Piet deserves all of the praise he has earned with this film. His well crafted script runs mostly on realistic and believable small talk between characters. There are rarely any grand monologues. The pacing stands up well through the film, especially through the middle half, where the romantic subplot and scenes of the small town somehow come off as both languid and piercingly tense. Almost every part, no matter how small, feels expertly cast, with all cogs working in symphony to turn the big machine. Most striking is Piet's camera work. He lovingly lingers on characters even after they finish speaking, making sure to catch their reactions to the other characters. He seems equally comfortable buzzing around a conversation between characters, or lingering over silent scenes, soaking in what isn't being said.
I felt there was some small homage or nod to the Coen brothers more dramatic films. The feel of No Country for Old Men or Miller's Crossing permeates, and I wouldn't be surprised to find Piet credit these for inspiration. The thing he takes most from them, and applies deftly to his own, is that this is never a movie about the destination. It's about the lives and people that get us there.