The question posed by the title of the new Shudder horror film What Josiah saw is never fully answered, in part because the film’s main character isn’t as central to the story as it first appears. The elliptical, digressive film is a dark thriller about uncovering family secrets, but it takes nearly 90 minutes of the meandering two-hour film before the central members of the family come together to confront those secrets. Before that, What Josiah saw is an episodic slog through vaguely ominous storylines that usually don’t add up to anything.
Josiah (Robert Patrick) is the patriarch of the Graham family, living on the family’s ramshackle farmhouse with his adult son Tommy (Scott Haze). Tommy may be intellectually disabled in some way, or he may just be eccentric – the movie is never really clear on that. Either way, he seems to have a codependent relationship with his unstable, alcoholic father, who likes to berate and insult Tommy. Tommy himself is more than a little creepy, spying on a woman and her young son at a store in town and pretending the little boy is his “friend”.
What Josiah saw is divided by chapter titles, and after roughly 40 minutes focused on Tommy and Josiah, the film jarringly shifts its narrative to Tommy’s brother, Eli (Nick Stahl) for a story that falls somewhere between folk horror and the detective thriller. Living in a trailer and harassed by his parole officer, Eli owes money to a local mobster (Jake Weber), who sends him on a mission in exchange for his debt being cleared. Eli joins two of the boss’ henchmen to attack a traveling carnival run by a band of Roma, who supposedly possess a crate of gold stolen by the Nazis during World War II.
Eli’s segment occupies most of What Josiah saw, but it’s also the least relevant to the main story, which is triggered when Tommy and Josiah receive a notice in the mail that an oil company wants to buy their farm so they can drill on the land. Eli’s baffling detour into an ill-fated armed robbery has no bearing on his later confrontation with his siblings. Only for a brief moment when a Roma fortune teller warns Eli that he is the reason his mother is “burning” seems to be connected to Josiah’s proclamations about family.
The third segment of What Josiah saw is the shortest, featuring Eli’s twin sister, Mary (Kelli Garner), who lives in an upscale suburb and navigates her way through the grueling adoption process with her husband Ross (Tony Hale). Mary only gets her own story for a short time before Eli shows up on her doorstep, asking her to sign papers to sell the family property to the oil company. She decides to accompany him to the farm to settle things in person, and only then do screenwriter Robert Alan Dilts and director Vincent Grashaw get to the heart of what haunts the Graham family.
The smoldering is clearly intentional and the filmmakers are building up the spooky atmosphere, but it’s only a superficial facade for a rather dull and monotonous story. Grashaw and cinematographer Carlos Ritter shoot the whole film in dim lighting that’s supposed to be eerie, but mostly makes it hard to tell what’s going on, and Robert Pycior’s score is full of instruments to strident strings that replace any real fright. Until the last act, What Josiah saw barely looks like a horror movie, though the visual style and music present it as something audiences should find unsettling.
Then in that final act, What Josiah saw pile on the trauma and absurd plot twists, which seem more laughable than disturbing. Even though the filmmakers have devoted a substantial, sometimes seemingly endless amount of time to each character’s individual story, so much has been deliberately withheld that there is little understanding of these characters as people or reason for s care when their horrible past is revealed.
Patrick relishes the chance to play the monstrous patriarch, bellowing and glaring, but Josiah himself is little more than a plot. The three main stars deliver performances as opaque and subdued as the film that surrounds them. Lots of horror movies, Ari Aster Hereditary to the likes — and superiors — of Bryan Bertino The dark and the wickedmy family trauma for terror, but What Josiah saw barely wrings out the terror of her family history and relationships.
What Josiah Saw premieres Thursday, August 4 on Shudder.