Fantasia 2022 Review: ‘What Josiah Saw’ Isn’t Worth Seeing

This Southern Gothic horror film has an interesting premise and intriguing characters, but neglects to do anything truly worthwhile with them.

Fantastia Fest 2022

What Josiah Saw (directed by Vincent Grashaw) has a lot going for it. Carried by compelling performances, fulsome characterizations, and a plot whose overarching premise is interesting, it seems to have the makings of a good horror. In the beginning, you will find yourself settling in for a good scare, but about 30 minutes or an hour in (the film is two hours long), the film lags and your mind will begin to wander as you consider whether to abandon the film. The thing is, despite having a lot going for it, What Josiah Saw seems to forget or neglect its plot by the ambling and meandering and bloated second act, and for this reason falls flat with a finale that seems a deus ex machina, unearned and rushed.

On IMDb, you will see the film’s plot described thus: “A family with buried secrets reunite at a farmhouse after two decades to pay for their past sins.” In reality, the part in the movie where they “reunite” doesn’t actually take place until the final few minutes of the film. What Josiah Saw actually concerns itself primarily with two of three siblings, Thomas (Scott Haze) and Eli (Nick Stahl), and their father Josiah (Robert Patrick), and only in a secondary way deals with the brothers’ sister Mary (Kelli Garner). The film’s first act is concerned with Thomas and Josiah, who live in the family’s ancestral home on a farm. Josiah is a drunk, overbearing, and terrorizing force to the feeble Thomas, who does much of the farm work. One night Josiah receives a message from his dead wife that Eli and Mary, who moved away from the family long ago, will visit soon, as an oil company wants to buy the family’s land. 

In the second act, we’re introduced to Eli, a good-for-nothing drifter who is tasked with stealing some gold from a group of Romani travelers, because in so doing, his criminal record (he was convicted of statutory rape) will apparently be cleared. We follow Eli into the Romani group’s encampment, where he has his fortune told by an old fortune teller. We learn that Eli is doomed. In the third act we’re introduced to Mary, Eli’s twin sister. She lives in a city and is working on adopting a baby with her estranged husband. When Eli notifies her that the family land needs to be sold, the siblings return to Thomas to sort matters out.  

Mary doesn’t get nearly as much screen time or fleshing out as Josiah, Thomas, and Eli. And that the second act is bloated means that the film chooses to flesh out Eli so much more than is perhaps necessary for the story. We are taken along on a journey to the Romani encampment alongside Eli for what seems an interminably long time. The effect of this meandering ancillary plotline is that Mary (who seems incredibly interesting!) seems neglected, her inner workings not nearly explored to the extent that Thomas’ and Eli’s are. All the male characters here seem much more fully fleshed out than Mary.

Additionally, because Eli’s subplot is not only very thoroughgoing and meandering to a fault, but also ultimately unnecessary to the integral action of the main plot, it is incredibly obvious and unnerving the amount of screen time is given to characters within this act hurling slurs against Romani people, aggravating how the narrative depicts them only through one-dimensional stereotypes. The group that Eli infiltrates so as to steal from them is layered in tired stereotypes that we have seen time and again in mainstream media. The Romani group here is depicted as mystical, backward, and keepers of an old and derided type of magic, and the film’s plot only does damage and violence to this group, stealing from them and then casting them in pathetic relief as they haplessly chase after Eli on foot as he drives away in a car. Because so much of this subplot is redundant, the stereotypes against its Romani characters are especially tiresome because they could so easily have been left out. Eli didn’t have to go on this side quest within the movie, or if he did, it didn’t have to be as belabored as it is here, and the slurs and stereotypical iconography could have been cut. 

I say that Eli’s subplot seems so long and winding because we have Mary’s story to compare it to. The film seems to want to tell us the stories of each of the three siblings. But when you see how much narrative space is given to Mary in comparison with her literal twin, it becomes evident that perhaps some of what we see with Eli and even Thomas and Josiah could have been pared back so as to depict Mary with equal care. 

All the characters in this movie are certainly interesting, and the premise is also interesting, which is why it’s such a shame that certain aspects are favored over others. If you go on Shudder (where this movie is available) and read through user reviews, you will notice the comments sing a similar tune: many viewers gave up on the film during their initial watch, clicking out of it in the first half hour, but they come back to it and after watching it through find the film to be captivating. And there’s the rub: so much of the pertinent drama and action here is relegated to the second half of the third act that the movie doesn’t grip viewers until then, and the magnitude of the plot doesn’t hit us until then, either. I can only say that the premise is interesting after having seen the movie in full. 

This is all to say, What Josiah Saw has a twist ending that the rest of the film doesn’t seem to have earned or necessitated, because so much time is spent on a superfluous-seeming second act. Consequently, the film has to pack a lot into its final moments, making them feel out of place and out of step with the rest of the movie. Ultimately, the film seems like three short films smashed together, rather than one cohesive whole in communication with its various parts. What Josiah Saw had much potential, and seems a good idea on paper. But it gets the better of itself and for this reason is a tiring slog. 

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