REVIEW: Uncle John

Reviewed by Mike Palovcsik

I really didn't think that this could be done. Tons of narratives have made use of the interwoven plot lines of disparate characters who don't meet onscreen until late in the movie. Many independent films feature a unique blend of various genres. But never have I seen a movie that I both loved, and would also describe as a thriller/romantic comedy. And not just "thriller", but Hitchcock-esque psychological angst. And not just "romantic comedy", but hilarious sexual tension that hasn't been pulled off with such aplomb since 'Swingers'.

The title character is an aging Wisconsin farmer (veteran character actor John Ashton) who we learn in the opening shot (and the movie poster) is responsible for a man's death (so no spoiler alert needed here), and the ensuing cover up. Being a congenial fellow in a small Midwestern town, he is not an official suspect in the victim's disappearance. But he is being harassed by the victim's roughneck brother, played with intensifying menace by Ronnie Gene Blevins. In a separate story line, we meet Ben (Alex Moffat, in his feature debut), a hipster animator living and working in Chicago. Sparks fly with the arrival of a new co-worker, New York transplant Kate (a stellar Jenna Lyng). The "are-they-or-aren't-they-just-friends" couple make a road trip up north to visit Uncle John, who we learn raised Ben as a child. John and Ben clearly care for one another, but something is amiss as Ben learn's of the town's recent news, and John is clearly on edge. The filmmakers do a stellar job of keeping the tension in check during a climactic confrontation.

That's it. That's the plot of Uncle John. Thin in the most perfect way. Because what it lacks in crazy twists, it more than makes up for as a compelling study in conflicting themes. The brooding scenes of John trying to evade suspicion in his small rural corner of the world are juxtaposed with the flirty and witty banter of the colleagues in the big city. The comic relief is necessary to keep the main story from getting too dark (it evoked 'Fargo' comparisons several times), and the small cast here just nails it. Ashton is incredibly believable as your average Joe. His scenes did less to convince me that good guys can commit dirty deeds, and more to elicit compassion for him. How difficult must it be to carry around such a dark secret? And what was it that could have driven such a nice guy to this? The answer is more inferred than explicit, and I'm a fan of films asking the audience to draw their own conclusions. It is no wonder that this often surreal movie with violent undertones has drawn kudos from David Lynch.

The film premiered at SXSW in March, and has been making the festival circuit since, including an opening night slot at the Wisconsin Film Festival two weeks ago. Premiere billing at the WIFF was fitting as producer and co-screenwriter Erik Crary is a graduate of UW-Madison and was born in Lodi, Wisconsin, where much of the movie was actually shot. Crary shares screenwriting credits with director Steven Piet in his feature debut. Next up is the Midwest Independent Film Festival in Chicago on May 5. If you have the opportunity to catch this one at a spring film festival, do so. It's a movie that has stuck with me in the days since seeing it, and I look forward to a repeat viewing.