| July 15, 2007

In an early scene from Joshua, we meet the extended Cairn family in the midst of a celebration. Brad (Sam Rockwell, Safe Men) and Abby (Vera Farmiga, The Departed) have just returned home from the hospital with their new baby, Lily. While Brad videotapes his mother and father doting over Lily, Abby gently brushes aside any suggestions by her mother-in-law, Hazel (Celia Weston, Flirting with Disaster) of getting a nanny or baptizing the newborn. While everyone is busy cooing over baby Lily, her older brother, nine-year-old Joshua (newcomer Jacob Kogan), effortlessly plays a complicated tune on the piano, surpassing the skills of even his Broadway star uncle, Ned (Dallas Roberts, Walk the Line). The scene ends abruptly with Joshua grabbing everyone’s attention by vomiting completely out of the blue. With this one simple scene, quietly contrasting a joyous moment that most people can relate to with the unusual behavior of Joshua, co-writer/director George Ratliff sets up the tension at the heart of his story. With every scene after, no matter how small or seemingly inconsequential, he builds on that tension until the pressure becomes nearly unbearable.
It quickly becomes obvious that not all is well with the Cairn family. Abby suffered from post-partum depression after giving birth to Joshua, and everyone seems to be waiting for her to crack again. Lily cries almost constantly, frying the nerves of her parents. Hazel is on a mission to not only make sure Lily and Joshua are raised as Christians (despite the fact that Abby is Jewish) but also to convince Brad to move the family from their Manhattan apartment to the suburbs. While Brad tries to keep the peace between his wife and mother, he is dealing with a financial crisis at work that is obviously starting to take a toll on his psyche. Oh yeah, did I mention that Joshua might be a genius who is also a budding sociopath? To give any more details away would be a disservice to the film.
Taking several visual cues from the unnerving and cold cinematography of Rosemary’s Baby, Ratliff has pulled off the nearly impossible task of making a serious thriller where the threat is an innocent-faced little boy. Where other films in this subgenre have relied on a supernatural element to make their villainous child frightening (The Omen) or simply used the premise as a jumping off point into a truly campy story (The Bad Seed, The Good Son), Joshua remains believable by keeping the titular child almost a textbook study of sociopathic behavior. Joshua is obviously extremely smart, but he never once acts like a little boy. In some of the more unsettling sequences of the film, not being emotionally connected to anything, he mimics the behavior of those around him. Unable to share in Brad’s grief over the (suspicious?) death of the family dog, Joshua merely begins to cry and repeat Brad’s dialogue. When it is his turn to play at a school recital, instead of dazzling with his ability at the piano, Joshua purposely makes one mistake after the other, falling in line with the abysmal performances of the children that took the stage before him. Ratliff never forgets that sociopaths aren’t necessarily evil; they just don’t know how to be human beings. The ability to differentiate between right and wrong is there; it’s just a line they can cross without fear of the consequences or their own consciences putting a stop to their behavior. This is a scary thought, especially when embodied in the form of a child and the film milks this behavior for every ounce of suspense it can.
Ratliff avoids the easy scare, instead creating a deep feeling of unease in his characters and by extension, the audience. While Joshua’s actions slowly become obvious to Abby and later in the film to Brad, his motives remain tantalizingly elusive. This ambiguity only heightens the tension and keeps the film from flying off the rails even in it’s effective, if somewhat far-fetched third act.
The entire cast excels in roles that lesser performers would have been tempted to over-play. As Joshua, Kogan has down the look of a charming but empty child. His behavior is odd for a little boy, but he keeps it believable with a fierce intelligence that masks his emotional vacuum. Farmiga perfectly captures the heartbreak of a mother who just can’t understand why her family seems to be in a constant state of angst that she is unable to fix. Her character’s slow descent is all the more difficult to watch because of her sympathetic portrayal. In perhaps his least showy role, Rockwell really shines. His Brad is a man from humble roots who finds himself living what he thinks is the dream life. He has a high-powered job on Wall Street with a great Central Park apartment. He has two children with a beautiful wife that loves him, yet his life doesn’t seem so dream-like. His inability to connect with Joshua, coupled with Abby’s seemingly irrational behavior after the birth of Lily, continually sucks any joy from his life. It’s one of the most layered characters that Rockwell has been given and he throws all of his talent into it, delivering a performance that makes us relate to Brad even as he becomes completely unhinged during the film’s powerful climax.
This is a dark thriller that never loses its grip on the audience and it’s going to divide people. Judging by the conversations I overheard as I left the theater, just as many people hated it as thought it was brilliant. Your personal enjoyment of the film relies quite a bit on your willingness to follow it into the dark corners of the human mind that most people want to ignore. If you’re able to do that, you will be rewarded with one of the best thrillers in years.

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