The isolated Graham family farm lies on the outskirts of a forgotten Texas town, and the only inhabitants left are drunken patriarch Josiah (Parker) and his developmentally-disabled son Thomas (Haze). Two siblings have flown the 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 oil men, 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 final moment of the film, although you can probably guess it early on. Josiah spends his days drunk, and Thomas caters to his dad, trying to please him. One scene is so legitimately traumatizing I am almost sorry I watched it. Whatever went down on this gloomy patch of land was bad all the way through. Thomas is convinced his mother haunts the place, wandering the grounds at night. Josiah is convinced Miriam is in Hell, and it is up to the family to save her from hellfire. This is not a workable plan to move forward.
Separated into three discrete 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 kids are doing well. The opening chapter belongs to Thomas. Dominated by his father, traumatized by his entire life history, Thomas can barely get through a moment without bursting into tears. He keeps his dad liquored up and can’t sleep at night. Eli is an ex-con (he did time for statutory rape: “I didn’t know she was 16”), is under suspicion for kidnapping a nine-year-old girl, and owes money to scary guys who will kill him if he doesn’t pay up. Mary, who had a tubal ligation as a young woman (understandable, considering her family), is now pursuing 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 creepy mood: lots of slow camera moves, isolated shots of empty rooms, misty light barely able to make it through the window panes. It gives an eerie sense of emptiness about to be filled by something terrible. The sordidness is sicker than anything dreamt up by Flannery O’Connor. Nick Stahl, in particular, is terrific. I’ve been a fan since his trembling terrified teenage performance in the unfairly forgotten (and hard to find) “Eye of God.” Stahl has been through a lot, and it shows on his face: it’s etched with hardship, sensitivity and pain.