Uncle John spins mystery, murder, and romance into a tantalizing web
by Peter Martin, Managing Editor
Beginning in medias res, Uncle John spins a delicate web of intrigue and mystery.
The titular character (John Ashton) is introduced as he's (probably) up to no good, a suspicion that is quickly confirmed for the audience but not for the other characters in the movie. John appears to be quite normal, an older gentleman who meets regularly with his senior-citizen pals at the local diner. He lives on a decent-sized piece of property outside of a small town in Wisconsin; he's friendly and pleasant and otherwise quite forgettable.
Meanwhile, a young man in Chicago named Ben (Alex Moffat) works as a graphic designer in a small company. His eyes light up when Kate (Jenna Lyng) joins the company as a middle manager. She's his new boss, yet she's friendly and pleasant and quite the looker. The nature of their working relationship brings them closer together, but, as his boss, she must maintain a certain distance, even though they are both attracted to one another.
The parallel stories feature characters who must dance around things that they cannot avoid entirely or, conversely, easily make go away. John is somehow connected to a dastardly deed, but cannot show any indication of his connection. Ben is obviously infatuated with Kate, but cannot act on his feelings without endangering their very friendly working relationship.
Furthering the notion that both men are doing their very best to avoid creating any additional damage to others, it's clear that John and Ben are also connected to each other, which raises the likelihood that they will eventually collide. Whether that will result in a violent wreck or a glancing blow remains to be seen.
Now, my description of the movie's opening sequences probably doesn't convey the extent of the lighthearted yet uneasy feelings that are engendered. John is clearly involved in some serious, possibly deadly business. As portrayed by veteran character actor John Ashton, who is fully capable of barking like a mad dog, Uncle John is a disarming personality. The character appears to be harmless, though he brings to mind the familiar refrain uttered by so many neighbors of serial killers: "He was so nice! He wouldn't harm a fly!"
The counterpoint to John is fleshed out by Alex Moffat as Ben. He too is a friendly and cheerful person, it would seem, yet small hints as to a darker personality become apparent whenever his friendly relationship with Kate doesn't quite go the way he wants. He never manifests any capacity for violence, and the setbacks he suffers sound pretty minor, but who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of mortal men?
I fear I'm still not capturing the spirit of the movie, which is consistently engaging and often gripping, even when Ben and Kate are flirting in a bar or John is chatting with his older buddies in a diner. Nothing quite seem normal after a terrible crime has been committed. Call it a disturbance in the force or a feeling of disquiet that seeps into the bones. Any way you look at it, something is not quite right in Uncle John, and that makes it a very distinctive movie.
Making his feature debut, Steven Piet directs in an assured manner, drawing from a script he wrote with producer Erik Crary. The cast adds to the moody tone, without drawing attention to themselves. I especially enjoyed watching Ashton, Moffat, and Lyng draw out the delicate facets of their respective screen personalities; not everyone can dance with that level of dexterity.
Uncle John taps into the universal feeling that no one is exactly what they seem. Sometimes that's a good thing; sometimes, it's not. With this movie, I was too entranced to much care.