Dark, brooding, and a little twisted, What Josiah Saw is a disturbing southern gothic tale that crawls under your skin. Starring Robert Patrick (Terminator 2), Nick Stahl (Hunter Hunter), Scott Haze (Antlers), Kelli Garner (Lars and the Real Girl), Jake Weber (Dawn of the Dead), and Tony Hale (Arrested Development), the film has a powerhouse cast that transform entirely, captivating the audience and luring them in to the layered story.
The film follows an estranged family with three adult children, Thomas (Haze), Mary (Garner), and Eli (Stahl), who return to their homestead to discuss selling the property. Thomas lives there, joined by their alcoholic father Josiah (Patrick), a dark presence that haunts Thomas, whispering in his ear, feeding him ideas that poison his already feeble mind. It’s an interesting dynamic to witness, and Patrick’s performance as the overpowering patriarch made my skin crawl.
The dialogue of the film drawls with a southern sensibility that carries a swaggering rhythm; it’s hypnotic. Much of this is thanks to the stellar cast; Weber in particular reels you in with every line. His delivery is like a well-practiced square dance; it flows and kicks when needed, with just the right amount of gusto, but it’s so laid-back that it sounds like he’s been doing this number his whole life. He knows the patterns, he knows the lines, and his character had me hooked.
Beautifully shot — in a way that highlights the bleak tapestry of the American south — What Josiah Saw captivates like a dustbowl dirge. Scenes between the family crackle with a spark that communicates the waves of words they cannot say. The whole cast — particularly the family — disappear in their roles, plucking up their audience and carrying them into a world of disaster and deceit.
The story itself — written by Robert Alan Dilts — ebbs and flows with secrets. Director and editor Vincent Grashaw pulls it all together to create a challenging and honest look at a family in disgrace. The film is told in a series of chapters, each focusing on one of the siblings until their stories are woven together for one final look at their dysfunction.
What Josiah Saw is all about sins and sinners, painting a layered and often uncomfortable image of a family who are burdened by the secrets they’ve buried. Trauma runs through their veins; the kind of trauma that is never cured, only managed. It echoes through the siblings and their relationships, which are all very well presented using the chapter format. This storytelling structure allows us to get a true sense of how they’ve managed their trauma — and how they haven’t.
As a whole, What Josiah Saw is an incredibly well made film. Carlos Ritter’s cinematography is beautiful, while remaining appropriately dreary. The score — by Robert Pycior — is so atmospherically perfect, it’s immediately noticeable as a strong element that supports the whole picture. It’s so well put together, perfectly cast, well written, brilliantly acted, and with a pacing that feels like reading a compelling novella.
Admittedly, I had to sit with this one for a bit. The more I think about it, the deeper it digs into me. There’s something about it that took root in my brain. It’s a complex family portrait, one that paints humanity in shades of a very dark grey. Every character is damaged. Every plot point is grim. It’s so bleak… and I can’t stop thinking about it.
Take what you will from that. It may be considered more of a family drama that explores the horrors of human nature, but it burns with a scorched core. What Josiah Saw stares into darkness… and the darkness stares back.