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You get two movies in one with Steven Piet‘s combination of slow-burn thriller and low-key romantic comedy. Depicting the contrasting stories of an elderly man in the heartland who’s apparently committed a murder and the burgeoning relationship between two co-workers at an urban media company, Uncle John deserves points for the audacity of its stylistic conceit. The film doesn’t work as well as intended, but has enough going for it to mark its director/co-screenwriter as a talent to watch.
Its other virtue is reintroducing John Ashton to the screen in his first major role in decades. The character actor, memorable for his sardonic comic turns in Midnight Run and the Beverly Hills Cops movies, delivers an understated but career-defining performance as the title character.
Seen disposing of a body in the film’s opening moments, John is an unassuming widower who looks like he wouldn’t hurt a fly. Whether engaging in small town gossip with his buddies at the coffee shop or politely ignoring the flirtations of one of his carpentry clients, he maintains a low-key demeanor that is only betrayed by the quiet intensity of his gaze.
His presumed victim is a former town troublemaker named Dutch, who has recently gone missing after reforming and traveling about the community making amends. He’s officially declared missing, but his grieving brother Danny (Ronnie Gene Blevins, exuding wild-eyed charisma) focuses his suspicions on John.
In the parallel narrative we’re introduced to Ben (Alex Moffat), an affable graphic designer at a small media company, and Kate (Jenna Lyng), his newly hired manager for whom he has an instant attraction. She seems to reciprocate the feeling but, wary of an inter-office romance, she instead becomes the sort of drinking buddy who sets Ben up with a drunken woman at a bar.
Their long flirtation, marked by much teasing banter, seems poised to reach another level when Ben impulsively suggests a road trip to Wisconsin where they can visit his Uncle John and partake of his hometown bakery’s old-fashioned treats.
Their unexpected arrival at John’s ranch leads to both stories coming to a head, with the characters reaching resolutions of either the violent or romantic kind.
For much of the film’s running time, the viewer is left unsure of the relationship between the two storylines, resulting in a schizophrenic cinematic experience. While both plots work reasonably well separately, they’re unnecessarily padded and don’t tie together strongly. As a result, the film doesn’t achieve its goal of its sum being bigger than its parts, although its climactic scene delivers a quietly haunting reminder that we don’t fully know even those closest to us.
The film is an impressive dual calling card for its tyro director who keeps the tension at a simmering boil throughout both genres. And the late-career performance by the veteran Ashton (sans his usual moustache) is a revelation. The now 67-year-old actor has been steadily employed over the years, but he’s rarely had a role as good as this one and it’s a pleasure to watch him run away with it.
Production: Uncle John Production
Cast: John Ashton, Alex Moffat, Jenny Lyng, Ronnie Gene Blevins
Director: Steven Piet
Screenwriters: Erik Crary, Steven Piet
Producer: Erik Crary
Executive producers Gary Jesdanun, Steven Piet, Erik Crary
Director of photography: Mike Bove
Editor: W. T. O’Brien
Composer: Shawn Sutta, Adam Robt
Casting: David O’Connor
Not rated, 114 min.
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