An imminent curse is probably the most undemanding go-to device to craft a narrative with a supernatural backstory, which uncovers itself as the inevitable course of action. Vincent Grashaw rides the same slope in his third feature, What Josiah Saw. Structuring a horror plot circling a familial curse, he touches upon the themes of generational trauma, long-term psychosis, and deliverance. But the film creates a unique impression by interweaving it across three variedly crafted chapters corresponding to the disordered lives of three siblings from the traumatically fettered Graham family.
On a Southern gothic landscape sits a deteriorating farmhouse inhabited by the alcoholic patriarch of the Graham family, Josiah (Robert Patrick), along with one of the sons, Tommy (Scott Haze). They leech upon each other’s vulnerabilities as they spend away their lives in toxic insouciance. However, things change when an oil corporation offers to purchase this house – haunted by the suicide of Tommy’s wife – for drilling purposes. It sets off a series of circumstances that provide an opportunity for the siblings to redeem their lives and becomes the fulcrum to mobilise different narrative trajectories around a paranormal crisis.
In the opening chapter, Josiah sees a vision of his long-deceased wife burning in hell for committing suicide, and the only way to grant salvation to her is to atone for their sins. It introduces the element of horror with religious overtones and the dramatic impetus for the characterological change of the father and the son. The second chapter concerns Eli (Nick Stahl), an ex-convict constantly at loggerheads with the law and reeling under the burden of heavy debt. As the film drives towards the climax, the final chapter depicts the turbulent married life of Mary (Kelli Garner) and the couple’s attempts to adopt a child while dealing with her abysmal mental health.
Robert Alan Dilts’ scrupulously detailed subplots maintain a sundry rhythm instead of persisting with sustained horror elements, which otherwise would have felt stilted, toneless, or emotionally cumbersome. But the rhythmic balance between the narratives fizzes and veers towards unwanted secondary directions.
The thematic and stylistic designs of the three chapters are peculiarly disparate. What Josiah Saw begins with the formal notes of gothic horror, transitions to the climate of a country thriller in the second chapter, and pans out as an intense drama during the third before ending with the spectacularly violent climax. Carlos Ritter’s cinematography with the debuting art direction of Cindy Greven creatively manifests this variation. However, one often remains uncertain whether it diversifies the experience or plummets the cornerstone of the horror genre.
After dealing with issues of social violence in a tale about a brutal teenage remand (Coldwater, 2013) and a high school vengeance (And Then I Go, 2017), Grasaw forays into the field of horror with a story that reaches into the inner recesses of a disjunct family. The character arc of Josiah, played with a befitting gravity by Robert Patrick, steers the culmination of the film’s central crisis. At the same time, the two-hour runtime brings about an undeniable drudgery to follow wholly unrelated narratives down to the source of family trauma.
What Josiah Saw is currently streaming on Shudder