What Josiah Saw: the best Texas Gothic novel you'll see all week!

I’m moving this discussion from the thread about jump scares, and I’ll start by quoting myself:

Thanks for the recommendation! I enjoyed this moody film. It really picked up steam as it went along and built to some nice, unexpected, yet totally organic reveals. I’m not 100% sure exactly what went down in that family’s past but I’ve seen enough… and none of it was good.

Can you be more specific on the audio jump scare you noticed? I’m not sure what you’re referring to.

It was the titluar moment of Josiah seeing something for the first time. More specific description below with a huge spoiler from What Josiah Saw:

It’s a silent shot of Robert Patrick sleeping. I got jumpscared by the sudden musical cue when his eyes jerked open and he reacted with horror to Miriam’s ghost. Which we don’t see, presumably because he’s a ghost himself and the audience can only go so many layers deep in this movie’s supernatural strata.

Got it! Thanks. More huge What Josiah Saw spoilers:

Yeah, that was a memorable moment but difficult to parse on first viewing. I even rewound to watch the scene twice to see if I’d missed something.

Movies like this that fuse short stories into a larger narrative whole can be tricky to read for three-act structure. I don’t even know if that interests anyone but me but it’s what I do so here I go again.

Thomas is act 1, Eli is act 2 rising action, Mary is act 2 falling action, then bring them all together for act 3.

But now that you’ve pointed out that scene again, and connected it to the title, I’m thinking that moment may actually be the inciting event around which the main plot is built. I find the logic of the Miriam ghost stuff to be elusive but it’s a smart way to externalize all the horror that father saw and endured over the years. And the climax is that highly-stylized scene where Thomas kills Mary.

I’m always intrigued by how family plots (Hitchcock pun intended) like this film or Little Miss Sunshine or The Royal Tenenbaums hang a story upon various family members. This one has a rough ending but I’d say it’s for the best to let that family tree burn to the ground.

Definitely deserves it’s own thread!

WARNING: UNBLURRED SPOILERS FROM HERE ON OUT Don’t read this post if you plan to see the movie.

I’m pretty sure the final reveal is that everything was presented at face value until Eli and Mary’s chapters, which introduce their perspectives, and because they’re the protagonists of their individual stories, we’re assuming they’re also the protagonists of the larger story everyone is getting pulled into. Eli seems like a good person in difficult circumstances, and we sympathize with him for rescuing the girl, for being uninterested in the cursed gypsy gold, for being such a complete underdog. And while Mary might seem unhinged, we can lay that at the feet of her abusive father, right?

But we discover at the end of the movie that they were indeed fucking each other, and have been all along (?), and that they murdered and buried their father along with Mary’s child. So we also discover that whatever supernatural mandate has been channeled down to Tommy through his father’s ghost, via his mother’s soul speaking from a tortured afterlife, isn’t just Tommy’s deteriorating mental state after his divorce and the loss of his own child. It’s actually something with supernatural insight into what Eli and Mary have been doing. It knows things Tommy can’t possibly have known.

And furthermore, it can unlock a door that Mary has locked to keep Tommy out! It reminds me of The Shining, where the only objective indication of something supernatural is the fact that Jack Nicholson gets let out of the freezer.

To me, this is one of the most striking things about What Josiah Saw. The ghosts aren’t the villains. Heck, they’re not even unreliable narrators! Instead, Eli and Mary are both unreliable narrators and, in the end, the villains. Like many ghost stories, What Josiah Saw is a story about posthumously righted wrongs.

I heart all of the above.

That scene where Mary says she waited twenty minutes to go into the motel, followed by that mega-sinful shot in the hotel room really up-ends our understanding of the whole story in a super intriguing and satisfying way.

But I’m still processing and trying to make sense of the whole. It seems you’re taking for granted something that I’m not convinced of quite yet. Namely, are the ghosts ‘real’ or is there a way to read them (or just the one ghost, Josiah) as a product of Tommy’s haunted mind? I like your Shining reference but I’m not remembering a door-unlocking moment in this.

Having thought about it some more, I don’t think it was accurate of me to say that either Tommy or Mary had short stories. Those were incomplete segments of the larger whole. But Eli totally did. That was a fully structured and goal-driven story from the assigning of the task to him entering the new world right up to the delivery of the goods, plus the girl. Major Raiders of the Lost Ark vibes. And one of the best shots in the whole movie, that effed-up POV on the gypsy fortune-teller looking up from between his knees.

It was great to see Nick Stahl again. I loved him in Carnivale but then he went off and rode hard and got put away wet. Every twitchy, nervous glance had the ring of truth. I’m glad he went to rehab and straightened himself out.

Right? That shot has a “wait, did I just see what I thought I saw?” quality! In fact, that whole episode with the gypsies is just so bold. It feels like a different movie. The blazing carnival lights behind the trailers makes it look like some backlot pocket dimension, like something magical or otherworldly. Ad I love the shot of Eli and the girl racing for the car with the out-of-focus carnival in the background and the angry mob closing on them. It’s one of those amazing shots I love from zombie movies, and I don’t even care that it’s not in a zombie movie.

After Tommy attacks Eli with the axe, Mary retreats into the living room and locks the door. There’s a very specific shot of Robert Patrick in the room with her, unlocking the door from within for Tommy. I’m pretty sure she sees them both, but even if she doesn’t, we clearly see the ghost unlocking the door.

But I understand what you’re saying. The first time I saw the movie, I was inclined to lean toward a non-supernatural interpretation. It certainly seemed to make the most sense, and it felt like the most “satisfying” conclusion, in terms of a story about the remnants of a broken family coming to terms with the breaking. It just seems natural as a character arc for Tommy, too, to go from a simpleton imagining his father’s ghost as a controlling presence to revealing his true nature as a murderous psychopath.

But I think – I could be wrong and would welcome a counterpoint! – that the script is just too invested in telling us things Tommy simply couldn’t know. That seems to be the whole crux of the matter in those final moments, too.

What Josiah saw isn’t just a reference to Miriam’s ghost. He also saw his children’s sins, as shown to him by Miriam. He then communicates this to Tommy. If Tommy was just insane and imagining things, if the murder of his siblings was just based on his suspicions or resentments or aberrant psychology, why does the script shove our face into what Mary and Eli have been doing at the last moment? Why does it present it in objective language, confessed by the perpetrators themselves, instead of as a conjured fever dream imagined by the murderer?

I’m not quite ready to put it in my “subtlety vs ambiguity” file, but I’m getting there! :)

Whoa, I don’t think I knew that’s what happened to him! But that lends a whole new angle to his performance. He was so beaten down in this movie, and “ring of truth” is definitely how it came across. You know, I think Mary even says to him at one point that he looks “rode hard and put away wet”!

Did you catch Scott Haze’s improv in the Tommy/Mary scene at the kitchen table? At one point a bug kamikazes into his tea and instead of ignore it, he fishes it out and comments on it – “Ladybug.” – before flicking it away.

“I saw that,” Kelli Garner says. I don’t think she’s breaking character, but it’s not her take, so I don’t think the camera is on her and it almost sounds like she thinks they’re going to cut and go again. But Haze is having none of it. He barrels right on into the scene, and the death of a ladybug couldn’t have been more perfect foreshadowing. After this movie, I have such a mancrush on Haze as an actor. He’s really fun in a “is he a bad guy or a good guy?” role in a Tim Blake Nelson Western I just watched called Old Henry, which can be a bit rough, but is worth seeing through for the Haze, the Nelson, and the payoff:

I also love a good Jake Weber appearance, and he and his henchmen were so much fun. I still have no idea how they got that big guy to fling himself across the trailer doorway for that slo-mo scene! And how about Tony Hale in a beard, without even a single joke written for him? I love that sort of casting against type. Also, I have a great Tony Hale story to tell y’all one day. Dude’s the real thing.

By the way, here’s the song from the end of the movie:


It’s just so…chef’s kiss.

That’s where I knew Tommy from! Old Henry. Another underrated gem.

Of course! That part. That was really interesting because I thought, “Oh, she sees her father’s ghost!” But then one edit later, I was thinking, “Wait… maybe she doesn’t.” She might be freaking out at the door opening.

Josiah is definitely shown opening the door for Tommy, but is that enough to eliminate ambiguity? Maybe. But it’s not like she chose a particularly good door to lock… there were all kinds of other entrances to that room. But between that unlocking door and the swift, sudden axe strike, I wonder how consciously they were doing The Shining.

I like how at some point you just start to suspect that maybe Josiah isn’t really there and that he’s just a ghost or a figment of Tommy’s broken mind. But you never get a big AH-HAH reveal. At the table, Eli says, “Who the fuck you talkin’ to, Tommy?” Maybe that line seals the deal but the movie doesn’t make a big fuss about it. It’s almost perfunctory by that point.

I like your word bold. Lots of bold choices in story and style. Like that crazy kill moment with the red lighting on Mary and the reverse close-up on Tommy who is inexplicably naked.

I’m coming around on your points, though… Basically once you get that final motel scene, everything Josiah is saying is true, not psychotic. I love how when Tommy claims Pa got Mary pregnant, he bangs the table and shouts, “LIAR! LIARS! DROWNING IN THE UNHOLY SEMEN OF YOUR INCEST!” He did say semen there, didn’t he?!

I gotta see this again. It’s a lot!

I was starting to wonder for sure when Eli and Mary are talking about getting Tommy to sell the farm and they don’t seem to be considering Josiah at all. But then Mary’s like “what about Pa?” and I figured they just hadn’t gotten that far. But no. It’s his corpse they’re worried about.

I didn’t get that the motel scene was a flashback at the time.

What do you all make of the very very last scene…the extended shot of Robert Patrick leering at the camera and reaching out to grab. After the credits. Goof? Cheap jump scare? Making out that the other incest scenario was also the case?

That was really weird, wasn’t it? I didn’t like it and I blame Marvel! It seemed like a goof and certainly not the image I wanted to be left with instead of the burning tree.

However, your last question is a good one, malk. We know what Mary and Eli did. But I don’t think that necessarily precludes Josiah doing terrible things as well.

I think he did do what they accuse him of (probably minus the baby, although they may not have been sure who the father was), and they did murder him for it. I’m not seeing a lot of reason to believe otherwise. Josiah definitely comes off as an abusive parent (even if early on he seems to be trying to temper it), the councilman certainly seems to have a low opinion of him, Mary especially seems actively frightened by and certainly has a hatred for the farm, and there’s nothing contradicting Mary and Eli on those points or suggesting a motive to lie about it, unlike their incestuous relationship. (And on that point, man, Tommy and Josiah talking about how pretty she is doesn’t exactly read comfortably.) Which is why I resist the idea that they are the villains of the piece. I think they’re abused kids who had a very understandable reaction to their abuser, but have also done things they definitely should not have. But this is the thing. Josiah doesn’t say, doesn’t see, that it’s Mary and Eli who have sinned and must be cleansed. It’s all of them, one way or another.

Yep, all very reasonable interpretations.

And there’s so much more to consider, as well, even though the story itself is focused on the family. But what became of the girl rescued from the gypsies? What became of the cursed gold just sitting on Jake Weber’s desk where he died? What’s Tony Hale going to do about the adoption paperwork now that he’s a widower??? I guess the only thing we know for sure is that Tommy will be in jail for a long time and the oil company will have no issue extracting any resources from under the property.

Mostly kidding, of course, but there are just so many loose after Miriam “redeems” her family. I think @rrmorton’s comment about What Josiah Saw is the perfect review:

Man, I really didn’t like this, although my viewing wasn’t assisted by my inability to distinguish between Tommy and Eli. I was very confused between acts. Also not a fan of the Roma storyline. Invoking the holocaust and then going on to indulge in anti-Roma stereotypes is a weird choice.

Maybe it’s just too dark a scene for me to perceive, but I’m not at all convinced of this. Watching it now, the sequence of events is: door unlocks, floor creaks, Mary turns around (way too slowly, but that’s horror movies), we see Josiah’s face, then the camera pulls back and we see the door opening and Tommy walking through. We never see Josiah’s hand on the door.

You skipped pretty quickly past that first step where the door unlocks. :)

The question is how does it unlock. The movie takes pains to show Mary locking Tommy out of the room. It then specifically shows Josiah inside the room with her. So unless the point was that Tommy has a key and the movie is just being coy by not telling us that, even though it felt the need to make a to-do out of the door being locked in the first place, you have to somehow account for how Tommy gets through the door. And why else would the Josiah ghost just be hanging out in the room if the point wasn’t to imply that he let Tommy into the room?

I mean, you’re right that we don’t see a hand on the door, so my comment that “you clearly see the ghost unlocking the door” is overstated, but editing in a shot of a hand on a doorknob isn’t the only way to show someone unlocking a door!

Anyway, it’s immaterial to the movie overall and I have no issue with differing interpretations of the scene. I just thought it was a cool touch for how it reminded me of The Shining.

EDIT: Oh, and sorry you didn’t like it. I’m especially bummed you couldn’t distinguish Nick Stahl from Scott Haze. I really liked both their performances, so I’m sorry to hear you found them indistinguishable. Maybe check out that Old Henry movie we mentioned upthread?

It’s a totally reasonable inference, sure. The record starting also leads to that inference. But it’s not incontrovertible and I think that’s deliberate. Something something Blade Runner.

Well, that might be Mary’s imagination implying that.

Boy, I think I need a bit of time to let this roll around in my head, but it left me rattled.

I’ll confess that at first, I thought Scott Haze was Nick Stahl, as Stahl had second billing and I hadn’t seen him since Carnivale, and that was, what, 20 years ago? But I’ll be watching for Scott Haze now.

And my god has Robert Patrick become terrifying. I’m glad I left the credits on because I was genuinely startled by the stinger and then had a good laugh after.

I need to think through the implications of Josiah being a supernatural entity. I’m still a bit reluctant to take his word as the entire truth, regardless of his corporeality.

Thank you for posting this! That song was the perfect cap to the film. In fact, the reason why I stuck through the credits and was jumped by the jump scare stinger was because I wanted to listen to the full piece.

I don’t know what I’m looking for with this question, necessarily, but what do you make of the use of old footage when Boone is telling Eli about the gold, Tom? Is it trying to make some sort of a point (maybe tied in with the depiction of the Romani?) Or just a stylistic flourish of questionable taste?