In WHAT JOSIAH SAW (2021), an estranged family reunites at the family homestead, culminating a lifetime of trauma with horror. This is a surprisingly good horror film that plays with the slow burn in an almost literary telling, while nailing every unsavory Southern Gothic trope. This might be the best horror film I’ve watched so far this year.
For years, the Graham family lived on their farm–cruel patriarch Josiah (Robert Patrick, delivering a terrific capering menace), twins Mary (Kelli Garner, channeling a barely submerged crazy) and Eli (Nick Stahl, exuding pain and bad luck), and their younger, developmentally challenged brother Thomas (Scott Haze delivering a warring mix of cheerful and haunted). The mother is dead, the product of suicide. In four chapters, we see them living their separate lives of trauma, bad luck, and woe, finally coming together after an oil company makes an offer on buying the land.
But Josiah had a vision, a prophecy of how to make things right again.
This is Southern Gothic at its best (or worst, depending how you look at it). Society in decay, bad luck, grotesques, incest, firebrand religion, curses, murder, all of it kitchen-sinked and yet given a fresh (rather than tired or cheap) identity. As if to cover all the bases, every negative stereotype about the Romani are hung out like dirty laundry as well. These are people struggling with enormous trauma due to childhood abuse. This is mean, dark stuff, but not quite nihilistic, as there is hope for redemption. It’s just that there are different kinds of redemption.
It all comes together in its horrific end, assembling like a Southern Gothic horror version of PULP FICTION with just a touch of FRAILTY. This is where things weren’t quite as satisfying for me, however. The ending subverts expectations by recasting innocence and imposing justice over redemption, which is fine. The more I think about it the day after viewing, in fact, the more it works for me. I think the problem for me was in the execution. After the slow build, a lot of reveals and events come together in a way that feels rushed. This made the end somewhat unsatisfying in the moment, particularly with the final reveal that I felt should have come sooner.
Overall, I loved WHAT JOSIAH SAW. Wrapped in a psychological horror package, it’s sordid, sad, filled with dread and menace, builds its characters with care, drips with Southern Gothic tropes, and issues an Old Testament style of divine justice.