Josiah Graham (Robert Patrick) doesn’t believe in God. To look at him and witness his actions is enough to know this truth, but his words have never been afraid to ensure those sentiments prove undeniable anyway. So he smirks when his youngest son dares to say grace before their latest meal. He starts telling a fantastical story about a dancing leprechaun that he saw outside his window that morning. Tommy (Scott Haze) laughs—both because it’s a humorous anecdote told in humorous fashion and because he’s a bit simple insofar as judging when someone is pulling his leg as a means to cut deeply with malice. His smile fades upon telling his father leprechauns aren’t real because Josiah’s face has turned to a scowl. “Neither is God,” he says.
If this exchange doesn’t get you ready for what to expect from Vincent Grashaw’s What Josiah Saw, I’m not sure what can. A father’s cruelty opposite his child’s pain is a defining feature throughout. So are abuse (physical and emotional), secrets (dark and damning), and an intentful atmosphere revealing the fact that redemption isn’t coming. Screenwriter Robert Alan Dilts chooses to draw as many taboo subjects as possible into his narrative so that nothing, no matter how salacious or vile, can shock us. A story told by a local government official to the owners of an oil company seeking help to buy land isn’t therefore as much a ghost story as it is a harbinger of evil. Suicide can sometimes be a necessary release, after all.
Even so, it damns the soul to Hell. That’s where Miriam Graham resides, burning for eternity these past 22 years. What makes now different? A letter from that company with a lucrative offer to sell is surely a start, but maybe it’s also just time to stop running. Tommy can’t have embraced religion so fervently for so long without it eventually guiding him here. Nor can living with it have spared Josiah from finding it had seeped into his own consciousness for a revelation of his own. This bully that fought hard to prove himself untouched by God’s grace suddenly opens his eyes one night to see the spirit of his dead wife demanding he take heed. And it changes him irrevocably in order to prepare their reckoning.
Is God offering the Graham family a chance to save poor Miriam’s soul? Or is it the Devil offering a fool’s bargain with the intent to expose a truth they’ve buried deep within the soil of that cursed land? Because it isn’t just Josiah and Tommy who have a part in this game. There are also the twins, Eli (Nick Stahl) and Mary (Kelli Garner). They escaped their father’s wrath and the specter of their mother’s memory long ago only to find themselves running from the same demons in a different place. He’s fresh out of jail and under a gambling debt (to Jake Weber’s Boone) risking worse. She’s married (to Tony Hale’s Ross) and recently obsessed with motherhood’s potential to remind her she possesses love.
While Josiah and Tommy fix up the farm in anticipation of an unconfirmed reunion, the twins must battle the curse their genetics has wrought. Eli’s is wild with subplots concerning pedophilia, Nazi gold, and Romany carnivals while Mary suffers under the burden of societal pleasantries—what someone with her childhood could never accept as anything more than the privilege of growing up without all-encompassing, crippling sense of fear. The details can seem disjointed and wildly off-topic from our knowing the endgame is everyone meeting back home, so know that everything they face does have relevance to the bigger picture—either by pushing them on course or by alluding to worse secrets still shrouded from our sight.
The title eventually has us wondering about time. Is it what Josiah just saw to let God into his heart? Or is it a recollection of something seen years ago—something so heinous that it drove Miriam to the noose? Add the very real possibility that everything we’re watching is predicated on a lie fueled by evil and the answer could be nothing. Because it doesn’t matter what he saw then or now. What matters is what those he tells believe. And if what he says about Eli and Mary returning comes true, how can anyone question the rest of what his so-called angel has foretold? Miriam’s suicide starts to feel like nothing compared to the sense of foreboding that something much more sinister lies in wait.
Grashaw’s ability to keep everything moving through that thick air of uncertainty is the film’s best attribute because it does feel like we’ve gone off-track more than once after chapter one (there are three, one for each sibling). Their shared past becomes the through-line connecting everything as Eli’s latest predicament puts him face-to-face with a fortune-teller talking about a mother burning in Hell while Mary’s emotional struggle with the prospect of adoption speaks to trauma that may reveal more than mere grief. Everything they’ve done to this point has been a product of what happened to them; maybe selling the land will be the final nail in the coffin that lets them move on. Or perhaps it’s only the beginning as home becomes their communal graveyard.
Dilts constructs his script in these disparate chapters to allow the payoff as much potency as possible. It’s easy to assume the big reveal if you’ve ever seen similar psychological thrillers, but he and Grashaw aren’t done until the very last scene. Assumptions are confirmed, subverted, and confused for the truth to land with impact, regardless of what you figured out and when. It helps that Haze, Stahl, and especially Garner have bought into their roles, the backstories putting them in their current, tortured headspace. Patrick is their menacing puppetmaster, either through divine intervention or malicious cruelty (stay after the credits for one last outtake) who knows he must only call them back. Personal shame and shared horror will ultimately be what tears them apart.
What Josiah Saw is playing the Fantasia International Film Festival.