Overview: A farmer tries to conceal a crime from the local townsfolk and his nephew. FilmBuff; 2015; Not Rated; 113 Minutes.
Hell Fire: Uncle John opens with a sermon. A preacher speaks about the existence of hellfire:
“Hell is real. It does exist. HELL FIRE, simply spoken, and praise be to God for it, and if you don’t want to think about that, you need to be ready. We are all going to die, every one of us, could be in eighty years, could right outside those doors. It does not matter we all stand before Him for our judgment. You need to think about where you are going to wake up. Are you ready?”
The words echo over scenes of rural vistas, farms, and the conclusion of a murder. It is a bold, tone setting introduction to the film. The audience is witness to the end result of the title character John’s (John Ashton) crime; a crime that, for now, has no context. The voice-over seems to be speaking directly to John, preaching to him about the reality that he may soon be facing.
The Setting: Uncle John is primarily set in rural Wisconsin. Director Steven Piet and cinematographer Mike Bove do well in capturing the atmosphere and essence of small-town life. Corn fields and cow pastures stretch for miles, John and his buddies eat at the local diner every morning, and he even drives an old model pickup truck that is synonymous with farm work (the only thing missing is the phrase “farm use” spray painted on the side). The secondary setting is Chicago where the other lead Ben (Alex Moffat) lives and works. When this setting is first introduced it seems like a completely different movie. No context is provided as to who Ben is or why we are now following him at work and through the city. It is a jarring change to go back and forth from the rural to urban settings. At first, it’s not entirely clear that Piet will be able to adequately explain the dual settings and their connection, but the end result is acceptable. The slight error in this approach is that the change feels so uncomfortable at first that no matter how they are connected later, it would not be without faults.
The Rule of Thirds: The rule of thirds is a basic principle of cinematography, and therefore usually not worth mentioning specifically with every movie. However, Bove applies this concept so well in two scenes that I would be remiss if I didn’t discuss it. John and Ben are the two main characters, and each of their introductory scenes applies the rule to mirror each other. John walks into frame, away from the camera, towards a lake which is the subject of the frame. A small inlet juts out into the middle. This serves as the center, with the two other thirds occupied by water on each side of the inlet. John walks out onto this inlet, following a man that is struggling for life after John has bludgeoned him with an oar. Ben is introduced as he is sitting in a waiting room. He sits in the left frame with two chairs, the center frame has two empty chairs, and the right frame is a blank wall with no chairs; from left to right each frame reduces in occupancy until there is nothing. These two scenes not only serve to introduce the viewer to the two leads, but it also provides a subtle symmetry and relation, leading to their eventual intersection in the film. This is simple technique and yet it yields such a fascinating result.
Overall: Uncle John is a subdued and effective thriller laced with tension. It features skilled cinematography and an accurate depiction of the spirit of small-town life. The film guards its secrets quietly and gently peels back the layers as it progresses. While at times it does feel disjointed because of the opposing settings, it ultimately wraps everything together by its conclusion.