The isolated Graham family farm is located on the outskirts of a forgotten Texas town, and the only remaining inhabitants are the drunken patriarch Josiah (Parker) and his developmentally disabled son Thomas (Haze). Two siblings have flown in coop – Eli (Stahl) and Mary (Garner). The biblical names are a clue to the background noise of the family. Mother Miriam is long dead, and the local sheriff tells the story of her death (it’s horrifying) to two visiting oilmen who want to buy the Graham farm for drilling purposes. That’s not the only Graham secret. One of the secrets isn’t revealed until almost the last moment of the film, although you can probably guess it early on. Josiah spends his days drunk, and Thomas turns to his father and tries to please him. One scene is so legitimately traumatizing that I’m almost sorry I watched it. Whatever went down on this bleak plot of land, it was bad through and through. Thomas is convinced that his mother haunts the place and wanders around at night. Josiah is convinced that Miriam is in hell and it is up to the family to save her from the fires of hell. This is not a workable plan for moving forward.
Divided into three distinct chapters, one for each Graham child, “What Josiah Saw” is almost an anthology film, each section distinct in style and mood. None of the Graham children are doing well. The opening chapter belongs to Thomas. Dominated by his father, traumatized by his entire life story, Thomas can barely get through a moment without bursting into tears. He keeps his father out and cannot sleep at night. Eli is an ex-con (he did time for statutory rape: “I didn’t know she was 16”), is suspected of kidnapping a nine-year-old girl and owes money to scary guys who want to kill him, if he doesn’t pay. Mary, who had a tubal ligation as a young woman (understandable, considering her family), is now seeking adoption. Her husband (Tony Hale) seems almost afraid of his wife. Mary is not well. No adoption agency in their right mind would approve her application. Eventually, Eli and Mary are drawn back to the family farm to confront their shared past of degradation and terror.
Cinematographer Carlos Ritter creates the eerie atmosphere: lots of slow camera movements, isolated shots of empty rooms, foggy light that can barely come through the window panes. It gives an eerie feeling of emptiness being filled by something horrible. The agility is sicker than anything you dream of Flannery O’Connor. Nick Stahl in particular is great. I’ve been a fan since his quivering terrified teenage performance in the unfairly forgotten (and hard to find)”God’s eye.” Stahl has been through a lot, and it shows on his face: it is etched with hardship, sensitivity and pain.