What Josiah Saw is not what one could call a cheerful film. It is a type of cinematic endurance test that sets out to smother joy, set it on fire, bury it in the backyard, and piss on its grave. Depraved, dark, and unrelentingly morbid, it is an abundantly miserable undertaking by design. Directed with a confident hand by Vincent Grashaw from a fantastic first feature screenplay by writer Robert Alan Dilts, there is a lot to stomach in what remains a captivating collaboration. The film is a fundamentally grim work of Gothic horror at its core, which is crossed with an unsettling family drama spanning decades of suffering that becomes increasingly menacing the longer it goes on. If all of this hasn’t sent you running for the hills to get as far away as possible from what this film has to offer, then there might be something for you amidst the pain. If this doesn’t sound like your cup of tea, then best turn back now with your soul intact.
All of this may sound extreme, but it is the only way to fully encapsulate the experience of What Josiah Saw. It is the rare film that really shakes you to the core, pulling you fully into the pits of despair and leaving you feeling almost sick. There is abuse, violence, and cruelty at nearly every turn, a suffocating force that leaves you questioning why anyone would ever willingly watch this. Yet, despite this, you end up emerging on the other side with something resembling closure. In laying bare all the ugliest parts of its story, it taps into something biblical in its abject brutality. There isn’t any deeper meaning to the madness, and it never seeks one. Instead, it just plainly and frankly reveals the pain hidden in every single frame. From the opening moments where we see birds scatter across the sky, almost as if they are fleeing from whatever horrible force is in the family home at the core of the story, the swirling forces of darkness never let you free from their grasp. It is as if the film is about a curse that people wouldn’t dare speak about though it remains all the same. There are only those trying to repair the broken parts of their lives even as their efforts are likely doomed to fail.
Originally premiering back at last year’s Fantasia Film Festival, it tells a winding story that is split into three parts. The first centers on the titular Josiah, played by a terrifying Robert Patrick who feels as though he was dared to give his character from the Peacemaker series a run for his money in seeing who could be the cruelest father. The patriarch governs over his remaining adult son Thomas (Scott Haze) as his other children have since left and his wife took her own life many years ago. Josiah is a mean drunk whose callousness knows no depths, all of which he takes out on his son. However, he also has a mysterious quality to him as he hatches an ominous plan he will force his son to carry out. The second focuses on a never-better Nick Stahl as the troubled Eli, an extremely flawed man who gets roped into a sinister scheme. He also is a registered sex offender, serving time for sleeping with an underage girl he claims he just met at a bar and didn’t know her age. Stahl embodies the slimy character with a nervous, jittery sensibility. He is shifty, prone to flying off the handle, and frequently fails to make eye contact with those he talks to. The third is best left vague, though it involves a woman named Mary (Kelli Garner) and a return home that ties everything together.
The film does feel as though it is shifting between genres in these different parts, playing around with our expectations even as it hurtles towards a horrifying conclusion. There are scenes that feel a little scattered as if it is struggling to fully hold together. Many moments exist primarily as exposition, needing to get out a lot of information very quickly in a manner that can feel a bit clunky. However, especially on a second viewing, the details crystalize as you discover that everything was almost foreseen. Every line of dialogue or glimpse of a seemingly disconnected scene ends up being immensely important to both the story as well as the general tone that tightens its hands around your throat. In one particularly telling sequence involving a flirtation that shifts into a reading of fortune, flashbacks are intercut with flash-forwards that create a tragic sense of inevitability. Of course, even those who “enjoy” the film would be hard-pressed to watch it again to consciously pick up on all these details. Still, they lay a foundation of fear that slips into your subconscious and makes the conclusion all the more devastating. It all ends up lingering in a manner that lays you completely flat.
The rising up of the score in such moments, starting with quieter strings that initially sneak around underneath the scene, soon reaches a fever pitch. It is as if a supernatural orchestra is screaming at Eli in a desperate warning to no avail. The use of slow motion as things descend into chaos with a ringing sound subsuming everything is fleeting yet frightening, playing up the fear as we realize how truly doomed these characters are. The fact that it feels like nothing they do will alter their fate only makes it all the more insidious. As everything fades away around Eli, and he seems to finally understand what is coming, the film leaves us with a quiet moment where he is passed out on the floor. The key moments where the score drops completely out, leaving us with only the sound of blows landing or even nothing at all, remain as riveting as they are revelatory. All of this is expertly yet delicately disorienting and dreadful, a testament to Grashaw’s patient direction as he drags us further into his vicious vision. By the time it comes together, and we see how things were worse than we could’ve ever imagined, it will leave you wishing you could take a shower for your spirit. The bleak reality we and the characters will soon face is that there may be no getting clean from the grime that has infested their very souls. Salvation may soon be foreclosed from them forever.
Without going into exactly why to avoid giving away too much, it is a film that feels like it is operating in a similar vein to works like Oldboy and The Blackcoat’s Daughter. To be clear, What Josiah Saw is still very much its own thing and doesn’t always have the same sense of subtlety as those films. It is still a strong slow burn that explodes into bursts of depravity, painting a portrait of misery that tests our limits as an audience for brutality and suffering. It is enigmatic and eerie in a manner that crawls under your skin until you feel like you can’t escape it. It is proof that films like this, even as they are enormously painful, can reveal the dark truths of being alive in ways other works shy away from. It reflects how life can often have no respite from tragedy, instead burrowing deeper and deeper into it. It succeeds in capturing this state of being, meticulously and ruthlessly ripping away the past until the future comes crashing down. As it picks its way through the rubble of the characters’ lives, it stumbles upon something profoundly honest yet deeply disconcerting underneath the horror. Whether you make it that far is an open question as the answers it offers are nothing short of shattering.