What Josiah Saw - New Release Review
Director: Vincent Grashaw
Starring: Robert Patrick, Nick Stahl, Kelli Garner, Scott Haze, Tony Hale
Written by: Robert Alan Dilts
Produced by: Angelia Adzic, Vincent Grashaw, Ran Namerode, Bernie Stern
Cinematography by: Carlos Ritter
Original Score by: Robert Pycior
A family with buried secrets reunite at a farmhouse after two decades to pay for their past sins.
If you're after a darkly grim, well written Southern gothic horror with a shocking twist then 'What Josiah Saw' just might be for you. Its deliberately slow pace is a bit of a struggle to begin with but it pays off eventually.
'What Josiah Saw' tells the story of three siblings, now all grown up and living very different lifestyles, who come together to decide the fate of their family farm in the wake of a financially substantial offer from an outside oil company. Their hometown is almost dying and the memories that each of the Graham children still live with from their time as kids on the farm continue to haunt them in their adulthood. But coming to an agreement after all these years separated isn't as easy as it may seem and the haunting memories that initially tore them apart still linger on the land and spread like a disease both spiritually and as we soon come to find, physically too.
Vincent Grashaw's fantastically bleak and harrowing direction of a somber story about childhood trauma and how difficult it is to dissipate as the years pass is something reminiscent of "dark side" Coen Brothers but obviously without any of their quick witted and unpredictable humour. It's helped by some outstanding cinematography by Carlos Ritter which really adds to the gritty tone of the film's subject matter specifically when the camera is present on the barren farmland or when we're following Eli Graham (Nick Stahl) on his very illegal adventures.
The film is split into chapters (which seems to be becoming more common these days) and so sort of unfolds with three vignettes of each sibling firstly then the finale brings them together to discuss their difficult decision to sell or not to sell. As mentioned above the film is very slow to get off and running and ultimately the slow pace works to its advantage because at the beginning we're following Tommy, the youngest of the siblings and the only Graham child that still lives on the farm. We find out later that he has moved back in after a failed marriage and that he is regarded as being "a bit slow" and of a childish mindset, with the implication being that his mind never fully developed after discovering the body of his Mother hanging from a tree outside the farmhouse when he was a child. He is the village idiot and somewhat of a burden to the family name. What we also recognise is that Tommy is deeply religious now. Looming behind Tommy is the ever-present shadow of his father Josiah, played to perfection by the ruthless stalwart Robert Patrick. As the patriarch, Josiah invariably has to put Tommy in his place and remind him that his Mother is gone forever. He is not religious and confirms this scornfully early on during a conversation with Tommy, however after a nightmarish vision one evening Josiah claims that Tommy "was right all along". Whatever Josiah sees is never translated to us but we know for sure that it has terrified him enough to the point that he turns a corner and admits to Tommy that they must "right their wrongs" or risk having their deep and dark secrets resurfacing.
We then jump somewhat jarringly into Eli's chapter and it becomes apparent that he isn't living his best life. Eli is an ex-con who is really struggling to get by and to top it all off he is in the bad books with a local crime syndicate. To make good on his debt he agrees to take a job stealing gold from a Romani campsite, which as predicted doesn't quite work out the way all parties intended. This chapter is particularly dark and violent and it digs deeper into Eli's character. In fact the whole segment really only acts a platform to promote character development from Eli, who we learn did time for child sex offences and who ironically enough ends up saving a child in the process of stealing the gold and "clearing" his name. None of this really has any profound effect on the main premise of the film but is enjoyable nonetheless.
The third chapter follows Mary whose marriage to husband Ross is at breaking point due to her incessant need to become a mother, something that was made impossible years prior due to an operation. Mary and Ross are waiting to hear back from an adoption agency and it's eating them alive a bit. Her chapter blends into the finale as she firstly meets and reconnects with Eli to deliberate over how they're going to convince Tommy to sign off on the sale. Then the duo make their way to their childhood home and after an emotional reunion with Tommy the true nature of the family's tragic and disturbing past begins to rise to the surface.
I won't spoil the twist but the end is fairly shocking and although I enjoyed the overall set-up of the film to this point it did feel like something momentous needed to happen for it to feel like a truly satisfactory watch. What makes the film really work isn't the actual story itself, though well crafted, it's the performances from the central cast. I'm not quite sure why I haven't been a big fan of Nick Stahl before but his work here is outstanding. It's a very subtle and nuanced performance that hits hard when it needs to. His co-stars are all great too, especially Scott Haze who plays dimwitted Tommy. Kelli Garner as Mary puts in the most emotional performance onscreen and as an ensemble they gel well together. Robert Pycior's haunting score adds an extra layer of dread inducing ambience that Grashaw and Ritter already create, particularly towards the end of the film when the magnitude of the real life horror is revealed.
Shout-out to Robert Alan Dilts on the fantastic screenplay, believe it or not his first feature, and while there are two scenes that have characters "explain" things instead of showing us (a cardinal sin in the screenwriting world) the writing is very mature and feels like it came from somebody more seasoned.
The horror in 'What Josiah Saw' may be sparse and it kind of dupes you into thinking there's actually more to the supernatural element going on than there really is however the persistent and palpable feeling of dread and anxiety lingers throughout from the very first couple of scenes. It left a mark on me that probably won't last too long but nevertheless I'll be excitedly seeking out Vincent Grashaw next project without hesitation.
- Gavin Logan
'What Josiah Saw' is available to stream exclusively on Shudder August 4th