A movie like What Josiah Saw is an example of a movie that could’ve been way better. I liked parts of it, but I found the overall movie to drag at times in which it didn’t need to. At about two hours including credits, it needs to be a little shorter but at the same time focus more on its characters. The movie brings up the works of Sam Shepherd and Tracy Letts as it focuses on a family with a dark history.
The movie was filmed south of the Oklahoma City area and around the Arbuckle Mountain range in the mid to late Fall of 2019. The desolate and dying foliage of south-central Oklahoma adds a tone to the movie that works all too well. The movie focuses on the Graham family, which is spread out along the region. The locations are never really mentioned, but there’s a reference to Austin, Texas being far off which leads me to think it’s set probably set near the Texas panhandle and even Oklahoma, itself.
Divided into four parts, the first part focuses on Josiah Graham (Robert Patrick) and his simple-minded grown son, Scott (Thomas Graham), who live out on a desolate property in the middle of nowhere on the outskirts of a unnamed town. The property is being considered to be bought out by some out-of-town businessmen, who hear rumors that the property is cursed and haunted. When Scott was a young boy as the story goes, he discovered his mother hanging by a noose from an outdoor tree.
Scott is religious, but Josiah isn’t. He tries to keep the farm up by tinkering on the tractor but allows his father to partake in alcohol consumption. Their story isn’t the best and there’s a scene that is rather hard to watch. It’s not as bad as the chicken leg fellatio scene in Killer Joe that Letts work, but it comes out of nowhere and Patrick’s acting makes it difficult.
The second story focuses on Eli (Nick Stahl), Josiah’s older son and Scott’s older brother. When his story opens, he is having rough sex in his trailer with a heavy-set woman who pays him with heroin. Eli has tattoos on his arms and a rugged look on his face like he hasn’t been getting much sleep or been hitting the bottle too much. My guess would be both. He is approached afterwards by his parole officer who informs him a young girl out of Austin has been reported missing. Eli had done time in prison for statutory rape of a 16-year-old who he claims never told him she was underage.
Eli is also indebted to the local gangster, Boone (Jake Weber) who runs the local bar and pays off the local law enforcement. Boone has a gruff voice and walks in a manner that suggests a permanent injury. Weber often plays weasels in movies like Meet Joe Black and U-571, so seeing him in this role is a nice change. Boone tells Eli that the gypsies are in town and he suspects they may have some gold from the Nazi Germany era that if Eli can obtain will settle all his debts.
This is probably the most compelling story as it also hints some things that will come later. Stahl, a former child actor who appeared in The Man With No Face and had a blink and you miss it death scene in The Thin Red Line has a rough time in the 2000s and early 2010s with substance abuse problem. He had to move away from Hollywood to his native Texas for several years to get his life together. Eli must go and deal with the gypsies where he also discovers they’ve kidnapped the girl his parole officer told him about.
The third story is the oddest because it really does have the arc the one with Eli had or the myterious unease the story with Josiah and Scott has. It focuses on Eli’s fraternal twin sister, Mary Milner (Kelli Garner), who lives in the suburbs with her husband, Ross (Tony Hale.) They have a nice home, drive nice cars, have nice furniture and clothes and hang around with people the likes would never associate with Eli, Josiah or Scott.
Ross and Mary are wanting to adopt a child. Mary expains she had a tubal sterlization when she was younger. Her marriage is rocky as Ross works with Mary who suffers from bad dreams and has mental issues from a trauma we later find out. Eli comes to see her and explains about having the property sold. Mary doesn’t want to return saying nothing good can come of the place. But Eli thinks this can help him start over.
So, they have to return and face the horrors of the home where they left. There’s a few twists here that I felt the movie really never earned. One of them I kind of saw when looking back on it, but I didn’t feel it was much of a shock. The other twist reminded me a lot of Shepherd’s Buried Child. Also, there’s an ambiguity as to what Josiah saw in the title.
While the movie doesn’t bring on the horror in the traditional sense of jump scares and ominous music, it’s a noble effort by director Vincent Grashaw and writer Robert Alan Dilts to go a different route like Taylor Hackford did with Delores Claiborne. Yet, I felt the movie never does offer anything fresh in the plot. We’ve seen this story of a dysfunctional rural family done before and way better. It seems to throw every element of Southern Gothic horror in the mix that you can probably guess the twists if you’re familiar with the genre.
That’s not saying, it wouldn’t make a good movie to watch for a couple of horrors to see Stahl who manages a good role as Eli. I just wish the other characters were given as much depth. Stahl and Garner had appeared in the movie Bully. But Garner is very underused here. And Patrick is still an underrated and under utilized actor. But he did a better performance in the HBO DCEU series Peacemaker.
What do you think? Please comment.