The French Dispatch and The Ballad of Buster Scruggs have recently shown how the anthology film is often content to supply a carousel of curios to amuse the viewer. But when the individual episodes aren’t merely self-contained but converge into a single conclusion, the portmanteau can supply a narrative kick like no other. Vincent Grashaw’s hunk of American gothic What Josiah Saw isn’t quite as accomplished as Pulp Fiction, whose intersecting trajectories and penchant for petty criminal sleaze it shares. But it has a stubborn, almost literary feel for character that accumulates a baleful momentum by the time the finale hits.
Josiah (Terminator 2’s Robert Patrick) is the shock-haired, blowhard patriarch of the Graham farm, which is being eyed up by local fracking companies. Supping his “morning tea” (read: hooch), he only has youngest son Thomas (Scott Haze) for company – though the pair are haunted by the suicide of the latter’s mother, Miriam. Meanwhile subsisting elsewhere on the white-trash fringes is another son Eli (Nick Stahl, another Terminator alumnus), a feckless sex offender who is strong-armed into a sketchy heist to obtain a cache of gold from the Roma at the local fairground.
Hovering over Josiah and Thomas’s bizarre dinner-table exchanges and Eli’s grubby encounters with low-lives and the law, Grashaw picks away at the family’s festering kernel. “There’s a hollow inside me – I can’t ever fill it,” says Josiah’s daughter, Mary (Kelli Garner), a mordant bourgeois pretender trying for a child. When the parties finally come together, over the oil-company offer, lurking psychological horror lurches into the full-blown physical kind. Slathering the climax with a crawling string section, the big reveal is straight out of the sordid southern-gothic closet, but the fragmented structure – clueing us in early as to how moral corruption seeps outwards – keeps the film sharp and contemporary. If only the depiction of the child-snatching Roma, which borders on racist, was that considered.
That latter aspect is a shame, given the astute characterisation and performances elsewhere. The entire main cast are strong, but Stahl takes the prize as the sunken-faced, swivel-eyed piece of human flotsam who manages one last noble act before destiny catches up with him.