Uncle John feels like a first feature. In this instance, I mean that as a compliment. The directorial debut of Steven Piet (who co-wrote the screenplay with producer Erik Crary), the film has a small-scale resoluteness, a commitment to telling an understated story with care and calmness. While the occasional evocative shot springs up, the film mostly proceeds with a smart humility. Piet isn’t trying to dazzle the audience. Instead, he wants to tell his story well, which is a far more admirable goal than wrenching attention with anxiously gaudy visuals.
In assessing Piet’s commitment to the integrity of his narrative it may be more accurate to pluralize the word “story.” For much of the running time, Uncle John has two parallel paths. One follows the older fellow of the title (John Ashton), a Wisconsin carpenter and handyman who begins the film with blood on his hands, literally. Without much explanation, John is cleaning up a mess. He’s committed a murder, and it quickly becomes apparent that this is highly out of character, so much so that his unassuming small town community clearly never really considers him a suspect, even when the dead man’s disappearance becomes all the buzz of the local coffee shop. The other story takes place several miles north, as a computer animator (Alex Moffat, coming across as lost Duplass brother who’s taken a couple Nicholas Brendon booster shots) flirts with his new coworker (Jenna Lyng). For much of the time, there are only the barest of hints as to how these stories will converge, although the familial designation in the film’s title lessens the mystery.
The film’s depiction of the enveloping grimness with which criminal acts infiltrate modest lives owes something to the Coen brothers’ Blood Simple but with a tone more reminiscent of Carl Franklin’s One False Move. And its attentive depiction of mundane middle American lives is like something David Lynch might come up with after the fever dream breaks (Crary was formerly in the employ of Lynch). If the strain of some overheated movie mechanics sometimes creeps in, as with the telegraphed threat of the victim’s brother (Ronnie Gene Blevins, giving it his best Sarsgaard impression), Uncle John keeps grounding itself in the smaller moments: the police officer who takes a flexible approach to abstaining from beer while on the clock, the snoopy chatter of locals mulling over developments in the case, or even the relaxed process of getting to know another person across a barroom table. Some filmmakers try for a flashy bang their first time out. Piet opts for the better strategy of building something lean, wise, and infused with the promise of intriguing growth to come.