An old tractor sputters in a wretched field, and vomits out one thick spurt of coal-black soot. That pollution is an augury of the impenetrable darkness that swallows what's left of the Graham family in the What Josiah Saw.
Their entrances are broken by chapters: First, Josiah Graham (Patrick, glassy-eyed as the mad patriarch) and his mentally broken, physically abused son, Tommy (Scott Haze), both grabbed by the same strange religious fervor about atonement. Then, Eli (Stahl), a crook who is not as bad as everyone thinks - and everyone thinks he's a degenerate, which he is, but not the kind they think. Finally, Mary (Kelli Garner), an artist trying to build a new family far removed from whatever it is she left behind but the nightmarish foundations of old trauma make such plans pipe dreams. An oil company is after the land that brings this curdled remnant of a family together, but their best plan would be to burn it and salt the earth.
Cosmic judgement lurks, scarcely visible, at the edges of Robert Alan Dilts' startling script: divine vengeance, ghosts, madness, curses, omens, a deranged act of faith as a response to a hideous sin. They are shadows cast across the hyper-noir inhumanity perpetrated in the shadows. Horror piles on horror, and revelation unveils only more horror. It's quite possibly the most soul-crushing psychodrama since Hunter Hunter (also starring Stahl, who seems to have a rare grasp for characters who can become submerged in such rural hellscapes), but it's got deeper roots in the taboo-riddled obsessions of Southern Gothic.
And not the Spanish moss and mint juleps kind: This crosses the blood meridian, dragging bloody stumps across land trodden before by Harper Lee and Jack Ketchum. Each segment is unique - Josiah and Graham's the most traditionally part of the traditions of rural nightmare, Mary's the most painfully intimate and introspective, a brief yet vivid depiction of her quest to put everything behind her, complimented by a performance by Tony Hale as the milquetoast middle class husband who will never understand the shadows that pull at her.
Yet Eli's is the most engrossing, a sinister excursion into the depths of desperation and life on the fringes of morality that could stand as a separate film. Stahl's gaunt powerlessness in the face of cops, crooks, and whatever sinister force drags him back home, turns disgust into poignancy. When judgment finally lands on the Grahams - in an ending that will spark as many questions as it answers, all cosmological in nature - it's a full bore inevitable tragedy. By showing us What Josiah Saw, director Vincent Grashaw has carved a jagged treasure from this bloody soil.
What Josiah Saw screens as part of the Fantasia International Film Festival running Aug. 5-25. Info and virtual passes at fantasiafestival.com.
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