Director: George Ratliff
Cast: Sam Rockwell, Vera Farmiga, Jacob Kogan, Dallas Roberts, Celia Weston, Michael McKean
MPAA Rating: (for language and some disturbing behavior by a child)
Running Time: 1:45
Release Date: 7/6/07 (limited)
Review by Mark Dujsik
Giving credit where credit is due, Joshua breaks the string of gore-loving and wildly ridiculous supernatural but toned down horror movies with a generous dose of psychological unease. Co-writer/director George Ratliff gets some really unnerving moments out of an accurate portrayal of familial dysfunction and childhood issues taken to an extreme. It's about a young boy who has either hidden being or begins to develop into a monster. Think of it as The Omen without the son-of-Satan angle. There's a certain familiarity to the material, but Ratliff and co-writer David Gilbert's script is authentic and ambiguous enough in playing out the emotional and psychological (albeit less ambiguous by the end) elements of its family unit to keep it from becoming second-hand. In certain respects, the movie works better as a study of a family falling apart than it does as a thriller, and therein lies a problem. It is, at its core, a thriller, and the movie falls into the trap of telegraphing its scarier moments and giving away the goods to early. The movie doesn't have a buildup to the title character's true identity; it's always there. Hence, the tension is scene-specific and not overriding.
Brad Cairn (Sam Rockwell) is at his nine-year-old son Joshua's (Jacob Kogan) soccer game when he gets a phone call. He grabs his boy and runs. They exit a taxi, and Joshua pauses at the crosswalk his father has just jaywalked across. Joshua's like that. Brad's wife Abby (Vera Farmiga) has just given birth to their daughter, and 19 days later, the family, including Brad's mother (Celia Weston) and father (Tom Bloom) and Abby's brother Ned (Dallas Roberts), gets together in the Cairn's New York City apartment for time with the baby. Joshua plays the piano and is ignored by everyone except Ned, and when they all begin to sing "Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star," he throws up. Joshua doesn't like sports, he tells his dad. He also tells him, "You don't have to love me. It's not a rule or something." Things get odder when Joshua is standing outside his sister's room after the baby sounds like she's choking, plays a creepy version of the aforementioned nursery rhyme at a recital and passes out, and begins to take an intense interest in the ancient Egyptian practice of embalming the dead.
It's pretty obvious that something's very, very wrong with Joshua. He's incredibly smart, yes, but all the animals in his class die mysteriously. He's a talented pianist but soon seems destined to write horror film scores. In one of the movie's more amusing lines, his grandmother also reveals that he was never baptized. The signs are there, but Brad and Abby are too busy balancing their lives to notice. Brad's boss (Michael McKean) acts like a friend unless things are going badly, and Abby, who fought postpartum depression after Joshua was born, begins to slip into a inert haze once again. She awakens in the middle of the night for some water, and after breaking a glass, Joshua steps back just slightly so his mom will have to walk directly into the mess. Joshua learns about his mother's depression after his birth by watching some home videos, and it's hard to tell how it affects him. He has a blank, calculating stare (Jacob Kogan has it down pat without overdoing it), and in one really disturbing scene, he watches his father mourn for the family's dead dog, mimicking every word and action, to get the details just right.
Ratliff handles the family problems with intimacy. Vera Farmiga falls apart with precision as Abby, and Sam Rockwell makes Brad's shift from dad of the year to paranoid obsessive believable. The balance of the domestic drama with the thriller scenes, though, is off. There are a game of hide-and-seek that goes awry, a scene on the steps of a museum which results in either an accidental death or intentional murder, and a night-vision sequence that interrupts a video of the last time the family was happy and together that are chilling. They are individual set pieces, though. There's no prevailing sense of tension, especially since it's completely apparent that Joshua is a sociopathic personality with deviant intentions fairly early. When he's standing outside his baby sister's room, unseen by his parents, and Nico Muhly's score becomes ominous and foreboding, the skeleton's out of the closet already. It's no longer a question of if Joshua is evil but what he will do because of it. Thankfully, Ratliff's doesn't overdo the moments of terror; they are disturbing in the pedestrian events that lead up to them. Try not to read too much into the subtext of Joshua being "different" and bonding with his openly gay uncle (even if it becomes bold-faced text by the end). It's disquieting its own way.
The finale of Joshua, just like its too-harried introduction to the presence of psychological problems, gives away too much when it's probably best for us to figure it out on our own, and it even does so in song. There's plenty to appreciate about the movie's approach to horror and Ratliff's sense of tension within those sequences, but the movie still shows its cards too early and then tells you what they are in case you missed them.
Copyright © 2007 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.
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