Throughout Vincent Grashaw’s What Josiah Saw, what Josiah (Robert Patrick) saw remains the million dollar question. The gruff, menacing patriarch of a secluded Oklahoma farm, at first all Josiah sees are his waning crops and devout, childlike son Tommy (Scott Haze), whom he mercilessly taunts for believing in God. That is, until the night he wakes Tommy up, swearing he was visited by God. He explains that the Almighty told him that he and his children need to repent for their sins, as that is the only way to save the family’s matriarch, Miriam, from the eternal flame she was condemned to after she committed suicide two decades earlier. Okay—we’re 20 minutes in, and the answer already seems simple enough: Josiah saw God. He’s convinced of it, and the ever-earnest Tommy seems to be enthusiastically on board, too.
But then we meet his other kids, twins Eli (Nick Stahl) and Mary (Kelli Garner). The former is engulfed in a life of crime and substance abuse, while the latter is clearly hiding a sinister secret—a suspicion that is confirmed when she reveals that, for some mysterious reason, she was sterilized when she was younger.
The more Eli and Mary’s troubled lives are explored, the less likely it seems that what Josiah saw was simply God offering the family an opportunity to save Miriam’s soul. And if you had any doubts that something more sinister was going on, the ear-piercing score will fix that right up for you—that, or the menacing Southern Gothic imagery. (If the sight of three kids standing in a corn field with paper bags over their heads doesn’t set off some major alarms for you, then I don’t know what will.)
Josiah’s initial vision occurs around the time that an oil company offers to buy the family farm. This, in turn, draws all three of the kids reluctantly back home to deliberate on whether or not to sign off on the sale. Josiah is split into four chapters, each following one of the now grown-up children in their mysterious, disquieting lives—sort of like a Faulkner novel with ghosts and jump-scares.
Leading up to its exhilarating third act, the film is the definition of a slow burn. Grashaw isn’t at all concerned with adhering to the agile pacing of a standard horror movie. Instead, he allows meandering, sometimes inconsequential conversations to play out in full, while confidently breezing over important plot details. Sometimes Josiah’s lethargic tempo edges on boring, and the less-invested viewer might check out fully during its longer scenes. But those who stick it out will undoubtedly feel a catharsis similar to watching boiling bubbles spring out of a pot after patiently watching water stand stagnant. This would have had an even stronger effect, too, if Grashaw hadn’t felt the pressure to liven things up with a screeching violin score, or the out of place and stale horror sequences that are haphazardly peppered throughout.
Most importantly, the film’s inertia reveals it for what it truly is: A meditation on religious trauma and Christian guilt. Throughout its two hours, Josiah poses a number of poignant questions about Christianity. Is the institution inherently traumatic? How do you tell the difference between devils and angels? What does forgiveness really look like?
Josiah’s contemplative mood conveys the onerous nature of pondering these questions. The haunting images emphasize the notion that there is something rotten lurking just below the surface of this world. Stagnant wide shots beg something horrifying to infiltrate the background; a cold color palette and a focus on shadows and silhouettes turns something as benign as a windmill into an emblem of pure dread. The actors, too, bring a subtle sense of trepidation to their performances, with Patrick stealing the show as a non-gimmicky, wide-eyed menace, and Stahl and Garner injecting each of their lines with a tortured weatheredness.
But there are times Grashaw undermines all of these elements by getting overly excited by the possibilities that his ambitious subject matter affords him. The finale seeks to resolve the story by following too many threads at once. As plot elements are quickly revealed, Grashaw attempts to shoe-horn multiple endings into this story, as opposed to simply allowing one thread to unravel organically. The film’s ending does reveal one thing, at least. If Grashaw had simply trusted his instincts a little more and allowed Josiah to exist as a simple meditation on one family’s traumas, it would have easily joined the ranks of the great cinematic Southern Gothic horrors.
Director: Vincent Grashaw
Writer: Robert Alan Dilts
Stars: Robert Patrick, Nick Stahl, Scott Haze, Kelli Garner, Jake Weber, Tony Hale, Ronnie Gene Blevins
Release Date: August 4, 2022 (Shudder)
Aurora Amidon is a film journalist and passionate defender of Hostel: Part II. Follow her on Twitter for her latest questionable culture takes.