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    Uncle John (2015): Movie Review

    "Two different stories fuse into an intense final act.” 

    Some secrets are meant to be buried, even up to one’s grave. In Uncle John, the debut feature of first-time director and co-writer Steven Piet, a small-town crime drama and a big-city romantic comedy flawlessly converge into a heart-breaking character study. This slow-burning two-pronged story reminds us that one can never really know one, even one’s self.

    The movie opens with what appears to be the aftermath of a fresh murder. A man stumbles into a river and drowns. John (played by John Ashton), a hunch, rugged yet strong, sixty-something carpenter and farmer in Wisconsin, silently observes the scene. Immediately, John wraps the body in a tarp, carries it over into his worn out pickup truck, rushes into an empty quarry and performs a DIY cremation. To further erase any trace of evidence, he pounds and minces the burnt bones. Obviously respected and loved in his small, rural community, John always involves himself in small talks and he soon learns that Dutch Miller, the murdered man, is declared missing by the police force. Prior to being killed, Dutch has found Jesus and has been going around town apologizing and atoning for his past mistakes. Probably, he must also have plenty to say about the rumors of him being romantically involved with John’s now-deceased wife. The recent development in the case may have spared John but Dutch's brother Danny (Ronnie Gene Blevins) is feeling something different in his guts.

    In downtown Chicago lives Ben (Alex Moffat), a likable simple guy and graphic designer working in an advertising agency. For a yogurt campaing, he gets a chance to collaborate with the newly-hired junior producer fresh from New York, Katelyn Barnes (Jenna Lyng). Despite working together most of the time and going out for a drink at nights, the two are careful in maintaining their friendly co-worker relationship. But when Ben takes her to a two-and-a-half-hour trip to his uncle who has raised him since ten, the two slowly warms up to each other while in the background, Uncle John silently cooks up another murder case. 

    Uncle John is a sublimely ominous, deliciously simmering and smartly created suspense. It is mostly a psychological thriller but unlike most films in the genre, it does not follow similar roads. Instead, it intertwines the crime caper with a light and easy rom-com, creating an atmosphere of equal tension and relaxation. It's like taking commercial breaks in between intense scenes. Yet, both stories are deliberately paced and well-studied, giving us a deeper understanding of the characters and their motivations. As it turns in the end, the blossoming romance between Ben and Kate is not merely a distraction as their presence in John’s farm tightened the drama and elaborated the fears and excitement. It is undoubtedly a taut and smothering climax as one will feel genuine concern for the four main characters and wonder how the unrecognized tension will be eventually resolved.

    There are times that the movie feels winding and overstuffed. It can still be cautiously cut since there are details that do not necessarily influence the plot and the characters like the post-one-night-stand mornings and a flirty client. It is already ambiguous and such inclusions undermine the narrative. For some, the conclusion may be sudden and unsatisfying. But then again, the film is filled with ambiguities, leaving the audience decide how to take the murk.

    Moffat and Lyng are lovely together as the couple from the big city. They do not have obvious chemistry but there is a hopeful spark that consequently does not disappoint the viewers. Individually, they deliver the needed energy and sentiments for their characters. But it is Ashton who totally carries the film. He is mesmerizing and brilliant, delivering an award-worthy performance of a man harboring a life-defining secret. His emotions are palpable, especially when he displays tension tinged with fear and guilt. 

    Uncle John is an impressive work for a first-time director. It is evidently created with passion, intelligence and craftsmanship. There may be flaws in storytelling or in the narrative itself but the final product is a solid and lingering piece of art. 

    Cast: John Ashton, Alex Moffat, Jenna Lyng, Ronnie Gene Blevins, Laurent Soucie 
    Director: Steven Piet 
    Screenwriters: Steven Piet, Erik Crary 
    Producers: Erik Crary, Jon Frank, Gary Jesdanun, Joseph K. Rubin 
    Director of photography: Mike Bove 
    Editor: W.T. O’Brien 
    Music: Adam Robl, Shawn Sutta


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