If last year’s The Dark and the Wicked appealed to you then this year’s festival season has brought a real treat your way. What Josiah Saw is two hours of soul-crushing bleakness wrapped in the guise of Southern Gothic and horror. Director Vincent Grashaw (Coldwater, And Then I Go) and first-time feature writer Robert Alan Dilts have stitched together an almost unbearably grim tale of trauma, abuse, their lingering effects and horrifying consequences.
What Josiah Saw is told in four acts. The first introduces us to Josiah (Robert Patrick, Tone Deaf, Terminator 2: Judgment Day) , a drunken, abusive wreck of a man and his son Tom (Scott Haze, Minari, Future World).
Tom is, as the locals would say, simple-minded, the result of finding his mother, an apparent suicide, hanging from a tree on the family farm. We learn this from the town’s mayor as he talks to some oilmen who are interested in buying several tracts of land, including Josiah’s farm.
Next, we meet Eli (Nick Stahl, Hunter Hunter, Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines). He’s an ex-con who can’t stay out of trouble or out of debt. Boone (Jake Weber, The Beach House, Dawn of the Dead) offers him a way out in return for him pulling off a robbery. Needless to say, that doesn’t go as planned.
Mary (Kelli Garner, Godzilla: King of the Monsters, Horns) seems to have escaped the family curse. She’s married and living in suburbia. But her demons, both physical and emotional, lurk just under the surface. And as she struggles to adopt the child she’s unable to have, those demons are threatening to surface.
A letter from the oil company offering a large pile of money for the land brings them both back home. Just as their father finds religion after what he claims was a vision from God. Granshaw and Dilts pack so much into the first three segments of What Josiah Saw that you know the last act has to be explosive. But what is still to be revealed, and how explosive it will be is one hell of a shock.
What Josiah Saw is at it’s best in the first and last segments. After the opening buildup, moving away from the farmhouse creates a shift in tone that dispels much of the film’s mood. Eli’s segment, while well done in and of itself, feels more like a quirky crime film. And it easily could be fleshed out into one as only a bit involving a gypsy fortune teller really connects it to the main plot.
Mary’s segment on the other hand feels a bit underdone and serves more as a prelude to the final act than a stand-alone piece. Much of what it brings up or hints at is left hanging, to be resolved when all hell breaks loose. It still works thanks to Dilts’ writing and the performances of Garner and Tony Hale (Arrested Development, Veep) as her husband.
A great script is nothing without great performances and What Josiah Saw has them in abundance. Not just the leads, but many of the supporting players, especially Jake Webber, give brilliant performances. The best of the bunch is Robert Patrick’s portrayal of the family patriarch and the root cause of all the misery that we see paraded before us. He looms like a dark cloud over every scene he’s in and everyone he shares those scenes with.
A relentlessly dark and anguished film that never drags despite a two-hour running time, What Josiah Saw takes you through a nightmarish world. And then unleashes even darker secrets in the final act.
What Josiah Saw is currently making the rounds of the festivals. I caught it as part of this year’s Brooklyn Horror Film Festival. You can keep an eye on its Facebook page for announcements of other showings and distribution plans. There doesn’t seem to be a trailer for it yet, but there is a Q&A session with the director, cast and crew from Fantasia.