‘What Josiah Saw’ Is Pure, Unforgiving Southern Gothic 

Dustin Waters
Dustin Waters is a writer from Macon, Ga, currently living in D.C. After years as a beat reporter in the Lowcountry, he now focuses his time on historical oddities, trashy movies, and the merits of professional wrestling.

Southern Gothic is an underrepresented genre in modern horror, most likely because it remains so brutal and transgressive that wider audiences simply aren’t willing to stomach it. What Josiah Saw (2021) embodies this concept, not so much relying on gore and violence to shock viewers, but instead focusing on characters willing to do anything to escape a past they are unwilling to own up to.

As a product of the South, I came to a truer realization about my home when I heard it said that the U.S. military loss in Vietnam was the first time many Americans experienced their nation’s defeat in the battlefield. That is unless you grew up in the shadow of the Confederacy. Then you’ve become well acquainted with the losing side.

Following its loss in the Civil War, the South saw its local school boards taken over by members of the Daughters of the Confederacy, who forced through textbooks sympathetic to the Lost Cause, shoehorning in their own version of history. You’ll notice a similar tactic being taken today. 

This misrepresentation of a shameful past is at the heart of What Josiah Saw. The film tells the story of a scattered family forced to return home when an oil company makes an offer on their farm. The standout of the film is Scott Haze, who plays younger brother Tommy, described in the film as “simple.” 

Tommy resides on the family farm and contends with his abusive father, played by Robert Patrick. Fellow Terminator star Nick Stahl takes a compelling turn as the wayward older brother who returns home for a last chance to save his own ass. 

Kelli Garner completes the remaining family core as the sister, Mary. You’ll notice I didn’t mention a mother character, and that is because one key mystery of the film is that unknown circumstances drove their mother to hang herself from a tree outside the family home. This leads locals to claim the property is haunted. And in a way they are correct.

Each character’s rumination on their deceased mother owes a debt to William Faulkner’s novel As I Lay Dying, which focuses on a family’s effort to transport the mother’s corpse to its final resting place. We are presented each character’s perspective throughout the novel. Similarly, What Josiah Saw is broken into three chapters: one for each of the three siblings. 

The second chapter, focusing on Stahl’s downtrodden Eli, veers into True Detective and Pulp Fiction territory in a way that truly feels like it should break the film. Fortunately, it just serves to add a welcome action beat to an otherwise slow and gloomy tale. 

Mary receives the film’s third section, and this is where we veer into the Faulkner novel that most closely mirrors What Josiah Saw. Sanctuary was written as a way for Faulkner to drum up some cash thanks to the salacious subject matter of the book. It features some of his most detestable characters and stirred up a bit of controversy due to the novel’s depiction of eroticism and sexual violence.

Sexuality in What Josiah Saw is grueling and problematic. It plays into the long history of past trauma these characters experience, but it also shapes them. Abuse has repercussions. Repression and shame have repercussions. This is all realized in these characters. The main problem is that no matter how sympathetic the characters become, their actions are still so shameful. The performances serve to win you over, but you eventually realize that no one is innocent. 

What Josiah Saw is hard to imagine without the context of influential John Edwards’ sermon “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.” Each character has a sense of dangling above a fiery precipice, awaiting their own eternal damnation. But even more than that, they all carry the exhaustion of a person who has been fleeing damnation for most of their lives. 

What Josiah Saw is at times shocking, but only if you ignore the greater historical and thematic context. As Faulkner said, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”

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