What Josiah Saw, the latest film from director Vincent Grashaw, is not an easy film to describe, and this trouble to pin down exactly what the film wants to be, seems to have extended to the trailer, which sells the film as something very different.
What Josiah Saw, at first, seems to be billed as a Southern Gothic horror story. We begin by meeting Tommy Graham (Scott Haze), who lives in a remote old farm house with his stern, drunk, and overbearing father Josiah (Robert Patrick). Tommy has a developmental disorder of some kind, and is played as a man with a much younger mind. He seems very kind and caring, but it’s clear that his father looks down upon him because of his condition, reminding him that the other people in town think of him as ‘simple’, and other less savoury comments. We also learn in a brief scene where the local major is talking to some oil company executives that want to buy up various plots of land, that Josiah’s wife hung herself in the tree outside the home decades before, and that Tommy was the one who found her. The locals now believe that the farm is haunted by her spirit.
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Despite Josiah denying the idea that his wife’s ghost has stuck around, he awakens one night in an apparent panic, and reveals to Tommy that he saw his wife, and that she has important work for them both in order to free her from the hell she’s in for taking her own life. This spurs Tommy into working to improve the farm.
The film then shifts to a second ‘episode’, where we meet Eli Graham (Nick Stahl), Josiah’s eldest son who ran away years before. Eli is in deep with local gangsters, and owes thousands of dollars. In order to avoid being killed, Eli agrees to help a couple of the boss’s henchmen to infiltrate a gypsy carnival to steal their supply of Nazi gold that was taken from the teeth of concentration camp victims. The movie follows Eli through this odd side story, before he decides to head back to the family home.
The third ‘episode’ introduces us to the final Graham family member, Eli’s twin sister Mary (Kelli Garner), who is trying to adopt a baby. Having been sterilised years before, she and her husband are having to fight to be seen as worthy of becoming parents. It’s clear that Mary is dealing with some severe trauma, and is haunted by things from her past. When Eli arrives on her doorstep and asks her to come back home with him to convince Tommy to sell his share of the farm to the oil company, Mary agrees to go with him, leading us into the explosive final part of the movie, where everything all comes together.
What Josiah Saw is an incredibly disjointed movie, and has multiple narratives spread out across the film that come together at the end. Whilst this approach can work, and has done well with certain movies, it feels poorly executed here. The biggest problem is the Eli section, which goes on much longer than the others, and has almost no bearing on the rest of the movie. In this part of the film we get hints that there’s something dark and evil awaiting Eli in the future, when he gets his fortune read by a slightly sinister old gypsy woman, but most of it is centred on the theft of the Nazi gold.
This part of the film just doesn’t really work. It’s like someone has taken a piece of a gangster movie and dropped it into the middle of this horror story hoping that it would work. The entire sub-plot about stolen Nazi gold bears no significance on the main plot at all, and none of the characters here other than Eli matter. We don’t need a half hour side story of his awful life in the middle of the film to justify his return home. It feels superfluous, self indulgent, and almost destroys the pace of the movie. It goes in such a completely different direction for so long I actually began to question if this was perhaps some kind of strange anthology film instead.
In reality, the second and third sections of the film are mostly surplus, and a handful of scenes lasting a few minutes would have been all that was needed to tell us about Eli and Mary, their lives away from the family farm, and their reasons for returning. As it is, by the time the film returns to the Graham home you’ve almost forgotten that it even started there. Luckily, there’s some decent acting to keep you interested, especially from Robert Patrick, though perhaps not enough to keep you hooked.
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There is a sense of mystery to the film throughout, and that will probably be the main reason viewers stick with it. There are hints scattered through the other sections as to something more than we know going on; some kind of awful secret that looms over the Graham family. Waiting to get to that final segment to find out may annoy some viewers, however, and the strange, often dream-like hints that you get before then may leave some frustrated with the wait. Whether or not the execution of the reveal, and the results of it, will satisfy will be down to individual taste, but I did find the final segment of the film to be the strongest and most enjoyable because of it.
What Josiah Saw isn’t necessarily a bad film, but it’s not a great one either. The interesting visuals and strong acting are let down by a script that feels too bloated and too all-over-the-place. A few more drafts, and the removal of stuff that really wasn’t needed, would have helped the film a lot.
What Josiah Saw is streaming on Shudder from 4th August.