Both the residents of the Grahams’ house and the town have memories of the late matriarch of the family. Years ago, one of the children found his mother hanging from a tree, and supposedly ever since her ghost walks the property. Instead of a traditional narrative, director Vincent Grashaw and first-time screenwriter Robert Alan Dilts have the film play out more like a collection of short stories, with one story for each of Josiah’s adult children. Decades ago, the family separated with hopes of burying horrible secrets, but now a mysterious call to come home reunites the estranged members of the Graham family. Filmed on location in Oklahoma, WHAT JOSIAH SAW portrays a true American Gothic story set in a rural, dark, and down-trodden world.
Each chapter provides very dark settings to mirror the overall tone of the film. Regardless of the location, during the day the sun shines in through gauzy drapes or dirty windows with very few electric lights in use. This creates a shadowy and dim location, and at night the darkness fills in the gaps between the daytime shadows. The film takes place in a modern year, but time stands still at the Graham house. The décor of the home looks like a 1960s farmhouse, and the lack of electricity in all the locations of the film makes it seem the family purposedly avoids modernity and remains stuck in the past.
In the prologue of the film, Josiah Graham (Robert Patrick) and his grown son Thomas (Scott Haze) sit at a larger-than-necessary table, which gives the impression people have left them. And that possibly at one point the dining room offered a place for a happy family, but now only the elderly Josiah and the slow-minded Thomas remain. The two men live together in the old house, but the elder man lacks any warm fatherly advice or care. Instead, Patrick depicts a terrible curmudgeon who seems to gain pleasure from messing with Thomas. He fabricates stories, some silly nonsense, others cruel and hurtful alternatives of the truth with the intention of isolating his son from anyone. Josiah likes to drink and not much else, so the character shows a tortured man who struggles with a secret and – now – a ghost. Patrick plays Josiah in such a way he makes it hard to tell if he is drunk or losing his mind. One night, Josiah (possibly in a drunken stupor) believes he receives a message from God and decides to wake up from his alcohol-fueled haze. He wants the house cleaned and improved upon because his dead wife wants him to ‘fix his ways’. Part of this cleanse involves calling home the remaining family members: Eli and Mary.
In the second chapter, far away from home, we find Eli Graham (Nick Stahl) who lives in squalor in an old trailer home. His simple and dirty living (unlike his family) does not come from living in the past or the desire for simplicity. Instead, Eli whores himself for drugs and lives under constant scrutiny from the local law enforcers because he is a registered sex offender. Eli’s chapter probably comes as the weakest in the film. The segment helps develop the character as hedonistic and severally lacking morals, but the story goes on a bit too long and also involves some bizarre plot points which include Holocaust gold, a missing child, and a Romani fortune-teller. And where Eli’s chapter came off as too long, Mary’s chapter deserves a bit more exploration of her character. Immediately following Eli’s segment, we see a very intense Mary (Kelli Garner) and her boring husband Ross (Tony Hale) who exist in a muted relationship with heavy tones of control. Hale speaks in every room, while Mary sits back and lets her husband lead. However, when pushed by a stranger Mary shares her thoughts. She does not hold back and lashes out unafraid of following polite dinner talk. Her story shows her desire to become a mother, but also the fear of the decision. She becomes protective of the idea of herself as a mother, but a strange darkness haunts her mind and her dreams.
Even though he only appears in the first and last segment, the throughline of the entire movie comes not from Josiah but Thomas. He found his mother. He stayed with his father. He still holds a connection (though tenuous) with his siblings. He gets very little support or recognition from his family because of his limited mental capacity, but he plays some role in every part of the film. While the other siblings reveal parts of their psyche from their personal surroundings and their actions, Thomas struggles to define himself as he still lives in his childhood home and under his controlling father. Haze, familiar with playing backwoods shut-in from his role in Child of God, does well with crafting an isolated man.
Patrick, Haze, Stahl, and Garner all did excellent jobs playing the various members of the Graham family and portraying complex characters. Their interactions with each other add such a high level of intensity and uncertainty to the film, the four definitely do well playing a highly dysfunctional family. The use of an unreliable narrator makes the ending tense and definitely a bold step in storytelling. The secrets become revealed, but the lies and mental imbalances leave the viewer wondering how much truth actually came out during the sibling’s reunion. The disturbing revelation, while interesting, might also serve as a distraction from possible missteps in the storytelling. The shock value of the ending will leave viewers talking and requesting a second watch; however, some might want to revisit the Grahams’ household because the ambiguity makes you wonder what is real and what is a plot hole.
WHAT JOSIAH SAW had its World Premiere at this year’s Fantasia International Film Festival.