“That’ll be a tough sell,” says a local approached by representatives from Devlin Oil in “What Josiah Saw” upon hearing plans to buy up properties in rural Texas with plans to drill. The petroleum prospectors think they have an offer that can’t be refused in an area where commerce has obviously dried up, but that is hardly why suspicions linger as to if they can successfully convince one family in particular, the Grahams, to give up their deed. The clan has every reason to, with twins Eli (Nick Stahl) and Mary (Kelli Garner) having moved away years ago, leaving behind their younger brother Tommy (Scott Haze) to live with their domineering father Josiah (Robert Patrick) in the wake of their mother’s horrific death, and you’d think that even without financial incentive, the memory of her hanging from a tree would be enough to drive them out.
Yet the traumatic event only deepened the roots that the Grahams had in the land, with a memorial carved into the tree she hung from as deeply as the memory is etched into all their minds, and for those who have followed the work of director Vincent Grashaw, who has long shown an interest in how codes of conduct are formed, the notion of holding onto something terrible rather than letting it go proves to be a fascinating starting point for his first proper horror film when previous films “Coldwater” and “And Then We Go,” about a youth rehabilitation center and the lead-up to a school shooting, respectively, felt as if there were just one step away from the genre in exploring how cynical worldview take shape and harden into violence. With a script from Robert Alan Dilts, “What Josiah Saw” exists between a variety of different poles where the destabilizing ambiguity gives way to dread, flirting with more heightened elements such as the occasional burst of skittish strings and the suggestion of witchcraft while feeling entirely of the real world, shot in a more contemporary style yet appearing as if it’s set 23 years ago at the time of matriarch Miriam’s death when the landscape hasn’t changed at all and structured a bit like an anthology with chapters set around each of the Graham kids, but connected only as much as the siblings are to one another, which is to say not much at all.
Without giving the details of happened to Miriam, except that the reasons behind her death were gradually accepted by all to be a bit of a mystery, Grashaw and Dilts instead trace her legacy as a devoutly religious woman who clearly didn’t receive God’s grace, giving way to a bitter father who no longer believes, a son in Tommy who stopped growing the second his mother died and follows her example to the letter, and the older Mary and Eli, who skipped town and tried not to look back. This didn’t work out well for anyone, with the recently paroled Eli seen attempting to pay back a debt to a low-level hood (Jake Weber) by joining a crew set to rob some carnival vendors passing through and Mary appearing stuck in an unhappy marriage after the permanent choice not to have children starts to breed certain regrets. As in Grashaw’s other work, the edge in “What Josiah Saw” comes from how the filmmaker leans on atmosphere and strong performances, with truly inspired bits of casting filling the juiciest parts that many in the ensemble have had for some time, but in embracing certain genre elements, the director subversively uses the context to bring to light to the banality of evil, with dangerous thoughts creeping into our behavior in the most subtle of ways and manifesting itself when it seems easier to surrender than to fight against it.
“What Josiah Saw” will screen virtually at Fantasia Fest on August 15th beginning at 9 am.