Southern Gothic story What Josiah Saw has just had its introduction to the world at the 25th annual Fantasia Film Festival. Directed by Vincent Grashaw, What Josiah Saw offers a powerful and bleak look into the complexities of family dynamics and the wounds of childhood trauma. Told across four chapters, the film delves into ever increasing taboo topics and is sure to be one of the most dissected and mused upon movies of the festival.
Robert Alan Dilts’ expertly crafted script places each chapter of the story into the hands of a different member of the Graham family. It begins with the patriarch of the clan, Josiah, before moving through the family in descending age order: eldest son Eli, only daughter Mary, then finally ending with youngest son Thomas. It’s a weird and winding tale, Dilts spinning the story wide, before slowly winching it back to the old familial abode for an explosive finale. In each section new secrets and truths are uncovered and the few breadcrumbs scattered within the opening snowball into a full-blown feast of family dynamics, underlying tensions, and decades old feuds. Director Vincent Grashaw is spoiled with so much rich material to explore and unearth and takes great care to ensure that Dilts’ harrowing narrative is played out in a careful and considered manner.
The more traditional horror beats for What Josiah Saw are expressed via Robert Pycior’s string-heavy score. Pycior going is strong and loud, making the instruments literally scream as they grab onto the heart and give it a good squeeze. The one slight complaint would be that these elements are pretty derivative of the work of Joseph Bishara’s Insidious score. Bishara’s jangling of strings is so familiar to modern genre audiences that it overshadows some of Pyciors work as one can’t help but be reminded and distracted by the similarities.
What Josiah Saw has drawn pre-festival comparisons to last year’s Fantasia offering The Dark and the Wicked (available on Shudder) and it’s easy to see why. Both films follow an estranged family with uncomfortable secrets drawn back together with devastating conclusions, but that’s not the only DNA that they share. Each film is almost drowned in potent aggressive energy. Much of the film plays without any significant scares or instances of horror, and yet one can never shake the sensation that something is about to happen. Trauma never truly leaves a person, and Grashaw saturates the screen with a visceral gloom that hangs heavily over our characters.
With such intense moments and painful plot points, the casting of the characters was essential to get right. In spite of the excellent script and superb directing, in the wrong hand some of these characters could have become silly caricatures. Each could have been diluted down to their topline traits and the result would have been a disappointing disaster. Thankfully casting team Sig De Miguel and Stephen Vincent have compiled an absolute dream team of talents, each actor batting our career best performances and ensuring that we believe in their character for the entirety of time that we spend with them.
Robert Patrick is excellent as the head of the family, the man that kicks off the chain of events that will lead to the excruciatingly intense meeting. He’s playing a type of character that he has played a few times before, but here Patrick pushes himself that extra mile making Josiah deviously creepy. Fellow Terminator alum Nick Stahl’s role of oldest sibling Eli gets what is perhaps the lionshare of the screen time. Eli exists in a world of sin, embroiled with the criminal element of society, and his part of the story is seedy and grimy, demonstrating how past errors cling onto the soul. The following chapter tackles the feelings of despair and depression that survivors have to cope with as Kelli Garner introduces her broken character of Mary. Garner is always a great addition to any cast and her work here is heartbreaking. Rounding out the cast, and the film, is the youngest member of the family, Thomas, played by Scott Haze. Of everyone, his character is on screen the least, but his impact is apparent for much more of the film. Thomas has a mild learning disability and Haze does a great job at playing the character in a respectful way.
Grashaw’s What Josiah Saw is a heavy and sordid analysis of the power of trauma and inevitability that skeletons always escape from the closet. Superbly scripted, purposefully directed, and conscientiously acted, What Josiah Saw is an immersive film whose darkness stains the skin and will leave you aching for a shower.
What Josiah Saw
Disturbing, heavy with gloom and disquiet, What Josiah Saw is an excellent entry into the ever expanding Suburban Gothic sub-genre of film.
What Josiah Saw was reviewed at Fantasia 2021.