What Josiah Saw

****

Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

What Josiah Saw
"What Josiah Saw simmers throughout, always potent, always dangerous." | Photo: Courtesy of Fantasia

Thomas (Scott Haze) isn’t quite right. Perhaps it stems back to the time when, as a child, he found his mother hanging from a tree out back; perhaps it was something else. He gets confused, and forgets things. Faith gets him through. He lives alone now, but for his father Josiah (Robert Patrick), who continues to torment him in spite of everything. Mother’s absence is felt everywhere. Her death cost Josiah his belief in God, or perhaps just his respect for Him, so Thomas is surprised to discover that he has had a vision: the other two members of the family must return home to the roost.

The family land is under threat from an oil company, but it’s land which Eli (Nick Stahl) and Mary (Kelli Garner) were only too happy to get away from. The stain of sin in the soil runs deep. Little grows there now, and cinematographer Carlos Ritter subtly filters the light to illustrate that something is off. Inside the house, overly large rooms diminish Thomas still further, though Josiah looms large within them, whiskey glass perpetually in hand. This is Patrick as we have not seen him before, concentrating his energy until it seems ready to boil over, creating a tyrant. Josiah is driven by a fierce conviction. Or is it guilt?

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This much we see in the first of four chapters, the film being formally divided in keeping with its Southern Gothic style. The next takes us away from the farm, to Eli, who is struggling with drug addiction and servicing it any way he can. He’s heavily in debt to local gangsters, prompting him to participate in an unlikely heist. Playing out like a dark Southern ballad, this segment of the film could easily stand alone. It’s Stahl’s best work to date. Like Patrick, he exudes a fierce intensity, but Eli has none of Josiah’s power, relying on luck and on his wits to see him through. Stahl does well to draw viewers close to a man who does not easily attract sympathy, especially in light of the ugly rumours that surround him, but Eli achieves a degree of redemption en route to confronting his past.

Is it easier to feel sympathy for Mary? She, too, has been broken by something in that past, but a woman positioned as a victim is more easily accepted by society, and she has found a husband (Tony Hale’s studiously lightweight Ross) to keep her safe behind quiet suburban walls. It’s only at night, when dreams come, that her inner darkness threatens to overwhelm her. That difficult past, however, has cost her the chance to have a child with Ross, and her known mental health problems do not make her seem like an attractive prospect to adoption agencies. For all that she’s terrified of returning to the farm, she has unfinished business there. The oil company money looks attractive, and she just can’t bury the past deeply enough.

With so much material available to him, director Vincent Grashaw has a surfeit of options and a battle on his hands to keep the whole thing down to a respectable two hour running time. His pacing isn’t perfect and it’s difficult to maintain the tension of some story elements with questions raised only to be ignored for lengthy periods, but he succeeds very well in creating an atmosphere from which there seems to be no hope of escape. What Josiah Saw simmers throughout, always potent, always dangerous. The final chapter brings one devastating (if not always surprising) revelation after another, en route to an ending in which long-awaited violence still leaves room for a hint of ambiguity.

Grashaw and writer Robert Alan Ditts know that the secret of successful Gothic lies in an understanding of the land and its secrets, and the things the land has seen. The power of this story is that as we work backwards towards the awful secrets that poisoned this family it becomes clear that the roots go deeper, that we are not close to the original source of contagion. The idea of oil extraction, digging deep, drawing up something potent and polluting, is the perfect metaphor. The soul of this land is captured in Robert Pycior’s strident, string-heavy score, which intermittently becomes overwhelming. In Eli’s chapter it becomes something more bluesy, even playful when tempered by other traditions. In Mary’s it is more modest, subdued, better suited to the dinner parties she can’t quite endure. Back on the farm it swells, unleashed. It is too much; everything is too much, and that’s entirely appropriate.

One of the densest and most complete works at this year’s Fantasia International Film Festival, What Josiah Saw has nothing in particular to say that has not been said before, but the art is in the telling. It’s a portrait of American tradition painted in the darkest hues.

Reviewed on: 14 Aug 2021
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What Josiah Saw packshot
A family with buried secrets reunites at a farmhouse after two decades to pay for past sins.

Director: Vincent Grashaw

Writer: Robert Alan Dilts

Starring: Robert Patrick, Nick Stahl, Scott Haze, Kelli Garner, Tony Hale

Year: 2021

Runtime: 120 minutes

Country: US

Festivals:

Fantasia 2021

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