“Just call me Uncle John.”
Uncle John doesn’t waste any time getting started. Less than three minutes in we’re thrown into the immediate aftermath/cover-up of a murder, and it works because it draws you in with minimal dialogue and an eerie score. Actually, before we go any further I have to say that the minimalist droning score, courtesy of composers Adam Robl and Shawn Sutta, is both inspiring and a key element to this film. Not to overshadow or take anything away from the performances but without the music, Uncle John would be an entirely different film (not necessarily a worse off film, but certainly not as intriguing). And what’s even more of a success with Uncle John is that director Steven Piet, knows when to use music and when not to use music. Film scores are important but they can sometimes be a distraction depending on how they’re used. Piet understands the genre he’s working within. Uncle John is a noir/murder-mystery so it requires a bit of silence from time to time in order to build tension and set the right ambiance.
After the mild anxiety-inducing opening sequence where we see our protagonist John (John Ashton) trying to get rid of the nameless body, the film’s tone shifts out of nowhere and we follow a young graphic designer (Ben) in a seemingly separate/unrelated story centered around him and his co-worker/love interest Kate. Naturally the two stories connect in the final act (as do the reasons for the murder at the very beginning) but for the most part it’s like we’re watching two completely different movies for the first two thirds of the movie (we eventually come to learn there’s a strong family connection that binds the two stories together).
Uncle John is bound to be compared to something like Blue Ruin (both films are “young-spirited” indie noirs that take place in small towns), but in my opinion it falls somewhere in between Clay Pigeons (without the humor), Shotgun Stories, Blood Simple, Night Moves (2014) and a (good) mumblecore film like Cold Water (in terms of style and cinematography, Uncle John also shares some of the same DNA as Chad Hartigan’s This Is Martin Bonner – another solid straightforward American indie that floated under the radar). But all comparisons and similarities aside, this is very much its own movie. It’s easy to take a directorial debut and compare it to a million other titles but Steven Piet crafted a solid debut. Uncle John’s strongest quality is that the story is simple yet it pulls you in. Piet doesn’t rely too much on “cool” Tarantino-esque time shifting or forced “innovative” camera work. Instead, Piet seems to have a somewhat of an old soul as he’s drawn to simplicity amd minimalism rather than “bells & whistles” (I don’t mean to discredit today’s young filmmakers, but it is pretty rare to find a film like this from someone Piet’s age). With Uncle John we get a lot of hints and implications rather than things spelled out for us which is something I appreciate.
On an existential level, watching John Ashton give it his all in the lead (title) role felt like he was intentionally trying to shed the stigma of his Beverly Hills Cop notoriety. There’s certainly nothing wrong with being remembered as one of the key supporting characters in a successful Hollywood franchise, but Ashton is a seasoned actor with decades of experience. I imagine he’d like to be known for more than just his role as “Officer Taggart” (I always felt his presence in Gone Baby Gone was overlooked amd underrated). Even though Uncle John won’t get the same audience as your typical studio feature, I wouldn’t be surprised if the fillm got some type of attention or nomination from the Independent Spirit Awards next year, because in the end, this is still a career-defining role for John Ashton, and a film worth paying attention to.