REVIEW: What Josiah Saw (2021)

dir. Vincent Grashaw

When developers roll into a small town to buy out residents, there’s one property which poses a problem. The Graham Farm, the local law man says, has a bad history. Some even say it’s haunted, the spectre of a townswoman reportedly walking the grounds at night. It’s quite a story, but one which might just be the least horrific thing to happen there.

The only people in the old house now are Tommy (Scott Haze) and his grizzled pa Josiah (Robert Patrick), who spends his days in drink and mocking his mentally impaired son’s faith. But when Josiah has his own religious experience with an apparent visitation by his deceased wife he becomes convinced she’s in hell, and that they must make amends for their sins in order to save her and themselves.

There’s a thick pall of oppression from the opening moments of Vincent Grashaw’s stunningly assured film which reverberates throughout like a feedback loop of ever-encroaching doom. What’s more impressive still is that this is no tonal trick – driven by jump scares or gimmickry – but instead is rooted in the elliptic plotting of Robert Alan Dilts’ script (his first, if you can believe it).

For what soon unfolds avoids the genericism of wronged spirits and isolated farmsteads, instead emerging as a tryptic of chapters following the Graham children: as well as Tommy – who still endures his abusive father – there’s Eli (Nick Stahl, continuing his welcome return to screen) and Mary (Kelli Garner), both of whom escaped the home only to be trapped in their own personal kinds of hell.

Eli in particular has fallen on hard times: he owes money to a local gangster, and finds himself sinking deeper into a debt bondage that might just claim his life. Meanwhile Mary seems like she has it all together – the big house, a supportive husband – but the facade is wafer thin, an abyss of sublimated trauma beginning to seep through the edges.

The cast are uniformly excellent, whilst Dilts’ interlocking plot unfurls with compelling, disturbing confidence. In this it perhaps best resembles Iñárritu’s superlative Amores Perros (2000), shifting gears between criminal and domestic spheres, blending sex and violence and the sense that things are ultimately – unavoidably – spiralling back together. The result is utterly mesmeric, a nightmare descent into hell which is equally about supernaturalism as the stories we tell ourselves to make sense of our own histories.

Tim Coleman

⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

What Josiah Saw is available on Shudder from 4th August 2022.

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