Trauma seems to, unfortunately, affect us all. No matter the degree of severity, no matter if you believe you’ve moved past it, trauma lingers like a bad taste in the mouth. Trauma in childhood especially can have effects that last a lifetime, and that’s exactly what director Vincent Grashaw explores in his latest film, What Josiah Saw. Written by first-time feature writer Robert Alan Dilts, the film delves into how childhood trauma manifests in people throughout their lives in different ways. It’s the type of trauma that is impossible to cure, but for the Graham siblings, they believe they can get at least some closure when they are enticed to sell the property that has their haunted past buried deep in its walls. But ridding ourselves of our trauma is never that easy, and for them, there’s no running from their past. What Josiah Saw is a horror film grounded in reality, made to scare with the relatability of struggling with darkness housed in our minds.
What’s immediately noticeable about What Josiah Saw is Carlos Ritter’s picturesque cinematography. Then, it’s met in contrast by Robert Pycior’s haunting score, seemingly suggesting that despite the beauty of this land, there is evil buried deep beneath its soil. That’s especially true in regards to the Graham farmhouse. “That place has a bad history,” the town’s mayor says (or we can assume as the character’s role is never explained). When oilmen come to town to inquire about purchasing neighboring properties, including the Graham’s, the mayor is quick to point out the farmhouse's cursed history involving the death of the mother, Miriam, some 20 years ago. He also makes a point to mention that God was testing her by being married to a man like Josiah (Robert Patrick). The father of the family, and the youngest son Tommy (Scott Haze), are who we are introduced to first. The film’s first half, set at the old farmhouse frozen in time, is suspenseful and frightening, heightened by the screeching of violin strings. It feels like a ticking time bomb as the relationship between Josiah and Tommy is explored and the family’s dark secrets begin to emerge.
The trauma of his mother’s death has affected Tommy more in certain ways than his elder siblings, Eli (Nick Stahl) and Mary (Kelli Garner). He seems lost without her, even after 20 years, and that trauma appears to be the root cause of his intellectual disability. Treated like the village idiot, this event traumatized him so much that, through Haze’s performance, we seem to be watching a child - like the farmhouse, he too is frozen in time. He sits looking out his window at nightfall, hoping to catch a glimpse of his mother’s ghost, his father judges him saying, “She ain’t out there.” Whether or not she is, her spirit haunts them both all the same. Josiah is a drunken, controlling, and abusive man, and Patrick’s performance makes you so disgusted by him that you begin to feel hatred towards his character and concern for Tommy’s wellbeing. It’s sometimes hard to understand their southern drawl, but their dynamic is captivating in its dysfunctionality.
Then, Josiah begins to experience visions from beyond that frighten him so much that he becomes a God-fearing man. Speaking about how his deceased wife is “burning in eternal hellfire,” he tells Tommy that in order to save her, they must right their wrongs. He’s been given the answer to washing away their sins. Every night he sees something supernatural, believing to be acting in God’s name but it may not be Him at all. What he saw is a mystery left to the imagination, and you even begin to have suspicions as to whether he’s making it all up. He uses religion as a manipulative tool against Tommy in a twisted game. Despite being buried so deeply, their sins are at risk of surfacing, and Josiah will do anything to keep them beneath his property. But lies and trauma spread like tree roots, stretching out endlessly.
A broken and haunted family stays haunted and broken for life. Grashaw and Dilts dedicate most of the film's runtime to looking at each member individually, dividing the film into chapters. They provide the backstory and character development that many films leave on the backburner, but with a film like this, it’s especially important for the audience to see how traumatic experiences can affect people differently. They take time to do that as the film shifts to eldest son Eli. An ex-convict on the lawman’s radar, he’s a gambler in deep and in debt to a shady character named Boone (Jake Weber). Having just been let go from his job, there’s no way for him to pay back the debt, so Boone offers him a way out involving a robbery. It doesn’t go according to plan, thanks in part to a fortune-teller who delivers a chilling message in one of the most intense scenes in the film. Misfortune follows Eli, and Stahl plays a down-and-out guy with a sordid past strongly.
The only daughter of the family, Mary is a married, suburban photographer who loves doing yoga and longs for a child. Out of all three siblings, she’s the one that seems to have her life together, but the macabre imagery in her work suggests darkness within her. She harbors as much trauma as the rest of her family, and she carries a lot of anger beneath the surface. You can feel the hollowness she speaks of having inside her through Garner’s gestures and expressions, especially in emotional scenes where she gets triggered by something that reminds her of her trauma and when she discusses how her desire for children comes from wanting to give something love – perhaps because it’s what much of her childhood lacked. When both Eli and Mary receive a letter from the oil company offering to buy their childhood home, they reunite. This letter, in a way, is what they’ve been waiting for – if they can get rid of the property for good, perhaps they can finally find closure. This all leads to a reunion back home with the goal of having everyone sign off on the deal, but it’s easier said than done.
What’s unfortunate about What Josiah Saw is that, while it’s wonderful to get such a full picture of all the characters, dividing the film into chapters and moving to different settings creates a middle section that feels disjointed. The tone of the first half is lost, only to return in the conclusion. It would have been much more pleasing to see this reunion 20 years in the making come much earlier, perhaps have the film set at the farmhouse through its entirety – a family drama à la August: Osage County and This Is Where I Leave You, with flashbacks in between providing backstory when needed. There’s so much beneath the surface in the first half that when you leave it you feel like you’re watching a different film. Their reunion, however, is so tense, emotional, and you can feel the awkwardness and unfamiliarity between them caused by such a long separation.
What Josiah Saw is a family drama of a sinister kind, with cues from haunted house tales. The heavy strings of the film's first-half return as dark secrets and lies are dug up. The suspense and tension as you wait for everything to be laid out on the table is like a fuse reaching its explosive point. And when confrontations reach their limit, oh boy, is there a twist. Grashaw and Dilts deliver a violent and shocking finale that can make us reconsider our doubts about divine retribution and, with much better handling than Josiah, desire to right our wrongs.
Movie Score 3.5/5