Since the 1920s, Southern Gothic literature has dealt out punishment to its characters and its readers. The genre chronicled uniquely American experiences while embracing grotesque and dark visions of the country. However, a focus on strange and upsetting stories ignored a central tenet of the genre, which author M.O. Walsh once described as an underdog mentality. While American Gothic’s origins stem from the Deep South, violations of norms and emotional trauma creep over perceived geographical boundaries. The new film, What Josiah Saw, tells the story of a family shattered by decades of trauma, death, and religion. While it suffers from some bloat, by the time the credits roll, What Josiah Saw frightfully carves its place out within the subgenre.
What Josiah Saw chronicles the struggles of the Graham family for more than two decades. After the family’s matriarch hung herself, the three Graham children have scattered across the country. The youngest son, Thomas (Scott Haze), remains at home with their pastor father, Josiah (Robert Patrick). Thomas begins secluding himself from society as Josiah’s verbal barbs become more intense and harmful to his psyche. Eli (Nick Stahl) finds himself at the mercy of a local crime boss (Jake Webber) when an easy mark passes his way. Mary (Kelli Garner) seemingly lives a comfortable life away from the brothers. Despite finding normalcy, she struggles in her marriage to Ross (Tony Hale). The children’s worlds collide when news reaches Eli and Mary about men attempting to buy the Graham estate.
Director Vincent Grashaw digs deep into the psyche of his characters, exposing the secrets of each child’s wicked past. Not a single character can claim the high-ground as the camera settles on their deeds, yet Grashaw takes his time in exposing the family’s darkest secrets. Unfortunately, the film shockingly spends too much time on some characters, especially given its four-act structure. Mary, whose arc comes well past the one-hour mark, receives the most disservice from the extended time with the brothers. Despite this, Grashaw’s vision and patience come shining through in the final act, hammering home the visuals and emotional beats he’s developed in each act.
Grashaw and screenwriter Robert Alan Dilts have bitten off more than they can chew in terms of genre. While the rustic elements of the first act blend nicely with the third act’s suburban nightmare, the second act feels like a story cut from another film entirely. Small-town crime, supernatural horror, and elements of a heist film do not blend well. While it represents juicy material for Stahl, the film creates few reasons to sympathize with his actions. Instead, the second act creates a genre mash-up that threatens to upend the rest of the film.
The actors approach the dark material with excitement, and their chemistry hints at underlying histories in their relationships. Patrick’s turn as Josiah becomes so large that his presence looms over the 2nd and 3rd acts of the film, a necessity to understanding why the other Graham siblings left home long ago. He frightens in nearly every scene, and Grashaw harnesses his spine-tingling abilities to great success. For Patrick, it’s a welcome return to form for the character actor, especially given its allusions to other disturbing pastors in past films.
Garner deserves to break out from the film for her multi-layered performance. The trauma in her face and eyes leads credence to narratives swirling throughout the film. The ambiguity of the rumors paints Mary as a woman that has suffered every tragedy imaginable. Yet, at times, she seems to control every aspect of her fate. Her performance carries much of the film, especially when compared to her male co-stars.
Despite the great performances, the film’s darkness will make What Josiah Saw a challenging movie for many. The atrocities committed by characters are unforgivable. The ways characters abuse others, and themselves, become too great to ignore. This bleak view of humanity and this family will turn many away from the film, especially those who find the characters’ actions cruel. With an ending that will surely divide audiences, What Josiah Saw struggles land its indictments. While the film critiques American cultural and socioeconomic divides, What Josiah Saw often feels performatively transgressive.