What Josiah Saw is one of those movies whose story is infused with human horror. It's not about monsters or aliens or demons. Well, okay, it is about demons, just the kind that are borne from trauma, not the kind that come from hell to possess people. The film, which had its world premiere at the 2021 Fantasia International Film Festival, has multiple plot strands that tie together in the end to deliver an emotionally harrowing finale guaranteed to give you chills.
Robert Patrick plays Josiah Graham, an abusive family patriarch who lives on an allegedly haunted farm with one of his three adult children, Thomas (Scott Haze). Thomas has some sort of developmental delays which are made worse by Josiah's weird old-school Bible-thumping ways. (A scene in which he forces his son to perform a sexual act in front of him as a bizarre form of penance is incredibly uncomfortable.) One night, Josiah has a vision that convinces him the entire clan needs to correct the sins of their collective past. He quickly gets Thomas on board with this idea.
Then the movie jumps to his other son Eli (Nick Stahl). He's an ex-con, forced to pay off a debt to a sleazy bar owner/criminal (Jake Weber) by accompanying two thugs to rob a group of gypsies. Things go wrong in ways he could never anticipate, sending him on the lam. He ends up at the suburban home of his sister Mary (Kelli Garner). She's married to Ross (Tony Hale) and they're thinking about adopting a child. At the same time, she continues to deal with the fallout from childhood sexual abuse. A company is looking to buy the farm, and Eli figures the cash could bail him out while allowing the whole family to get out from under its dark spell at the same time. He asks Mary to go along with that plan.
I don't want to give away how all these disparate elements fit together, but rest assured that they do. The final fifteen minutes of What Josiah Saw are a powder keg, as shocking family secrets come to the surface. In these concluding moments, we see the characters in a different light, understanding their personal traumas with much greater clarity. At its core, the movie is about the wide-ranging effects of abuse and how being subjected to it can impact a victim throughout their life.
Strong work from the entire cast keeps the admittedly tough material from feeling exploitative. Stahl, Garner, and Haze are very good at portraying the different ways the Graham children have been affected by – and have responded to – their father's various forms of abuse. As that father, Robert Patrick gives what may be the performance of his career. He's chilling, skillfully avoiding the usual bad guy clichés in favor of a nuanced turn as a badly damaged man who has damaged others in return.
What Josiah Saw is brutal to watch at times. And yet you somehow can't look away, either. That's the allure of this powerful, suspenseful film.
What Josiah Saw is unrated. but contains adult language, graphic violence, drug content, and sexuality/nudity. The running time is 2 hours.