SXSW Review: Uncle John, a Suspenseful Thriller/Romance
by Geoff Henao
Anxiety and tension can be a film’s greatest assets when used appropriately. Sure, horror films may rely on supernatural entities, quick scares, and gore to frighten audiences, but nothing is more harrowing than watching the slow build of something sinister you’re not quite sure of, and the anxiety over waiting for it to reach a head. The best psychological thrillers can take the slow build and create an unease that we can all relate to, given the genre’s tendency to stay grounded in its narrative and characters. At the same time, we don’t always find ourselves in scenarios where a mysterious disappearance affects us directly. Rather, we find our tension and anxiety within our interactions with everyday people, especially in regards to romantic pursuits.
Uncle John takes the elements of harboring a secret in a small town and the tension caused by a budding romance between a manager and her employee to create a hybrid psychological thriller/indie romance that, despite my inadequate summary of the film’s tone, works extremely soundly and shows that combining two vastly differing genres into one film can be done successfully.
A tight-knit community in a small Illinois town is stunned when a man known for his rambunctious past goes missing following a round of personal apologies as a means of atonement. Unbeknownst to everybody but the missing man’s brother, Danny (Ronnie Gene Blevins), the anonymous and unthreatening John (John Ashton) has everything to do with the disappearance, but his calm, friendly demeanor hides his dark secrets. Meanwhile, a graphic designer in Chicago named Ben (Alex Moffat) finds himself facing his own tension when a new project manager, Kate (Jenna Lyng), is assigned to work with him. While their interactions are cordial, they soon begin to grow closer to one another, despite the social scrutiny of workplace relationships. Each narrative converges into one when Ben pays John a visit as both men must overcome their respective tension to deal with the secrets they hide.
As I mentioned in the introduction, I’m doing a terrible job at summarizing the film, because while the overall sweeping dual narratives are enough to entice curious viewers, the true strength of the film is found in the nuances of the direction, tone, and performances. It’s hard to simply capture those feelings into words without spoiling the film, especially in one like Uncle John where the payoff is not only satisfying, it leads viewers down a path of character analysis in which they try to decipher each characters’ true natures and intentions.
Honestly, I can try as hard as I can to best praise Uncle John, but it truly is one of those remarkable films where you’ll enjoy it more going into it blind. Uncle John is perfect for cinephiles that love to dissect and analyze every aspect of a film, but also has enough appeal to attract casual viewers. One thing is clear: Uncle John is the type of film you’ll enjoy debating and discussing with other film fanatics after multiple viewings. Isn’t that what the medium is all about?