J.B. Spins

Jazz, film, and improvised culture.

Monday, September 14, 2015

Uncle John: Wisconsin Noir

It turns out people do not know everybody’s business in small towns. After having visions of Hell Fire, Old Dutch set out to make amends with everyone he wronged, but his confessions have shocked the rural community. Apparently, this is particularly true of Ben’s Uncle John. Although we do not see how the fatal chain of events transpired, there is no question the titular carpenter is disposing of Dutch’s body in the opening scenes of Steven Piet’s Uncle John (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

He might be a murderer (manslaughter seems the more fitting charge), but John is not a bad sort, really. In fact, he is a salt-of-the-earth kind of guy according to Ben. As part of his pseudo-courtship of a new co-worker, the Chicago-based web designer explains how Uncle John raised him after his mother died and his father absconded.

As Ben hesitantly puts the moves on Kate, we see John scramble to cover his tracks and deflect the suspicions of Dutch’s delinquent younger brother Danny Miller. Fortunately, the sheriff does not share Miller’s line of thinking, but he keeps popping by at inopportune moments. However, Uncle John will really have to start tap-dancing when Ben brings Kate home for a spur-of-the-moment visit.

At first glance, Uncle John looks like two completely different films—Fargo in Wisconsin and About Last Night in Chicago—stuck together by a mere familial connection, yet somehow Piet makes it click. Partly that is because we get a powerful sense of how important the characters are to each other, even when living miles apart, but there is also a hard to define atmosphere of unease permeating the entire film. Whatever it is, it just works.

Of course, it is no secret how much John Ashton brings to the film as Uncle John. Best known as Sgt. Taggart in the Beverly Hills Cop franchise, Ashton has worked steadily in the industry for years, but with Uncle he finally gets a career-defining role. He flat-out knocks it out of the park with his quiet, slow-boiling performance. At times, you can practically see the steam rising from his head, as Uncle John struggles to keep it together. Alex Moffat and Jenna Lyng are also charismatic and develop convincing ambiguous chemistry together, but they would probably be the first to admit Ashton is leading this parade.

As strong as the cast is, they cannot do their thing in a vacuum. Fortunately, Piet has a pitch-perfect understanding of the upper Midwest as a geographical place and a state of mind. Frankly, Uncle John looks and feels more genuine than obvious comparative films like Fargo, Blood Simple, A Simple Plan, and A Single Shot. He also shows an unusual keen intuitive sense of how much to reveal and when. It is a strangely effective thriller precisely because it is not compulsively thrillerish. Highly recommended for fans of small town noirs, Uncle John opens this Friday (9/18) in New York, at the Village East.