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JOSHUA (director/writer: George Ratliff; screenwriter: David Gilbert; cinematographer: Benoît Debie; editor: Jacob Craycroft; music: Nico Muhly; cast: Sam Rockwell (Brad Cairn), Vera Farmiga (Abby Cairn), Celia Weston (Hazel Cairn), Dallas Roberts (Ned Davidoff), Michael McKean (Chester Jerkins), Alex Draper (Stewart Slocum), Nancy Giles (Betsy Polsheck), Linda Larkin (Ms. Danforth), Stephanie Roth Haberle (Pediatrician), Jacob Kogan (Joshua Cairn), Tom Bloom (Joe Cairn); Runtime: 105; MPAA Rating: R; producer: Johnathan Dorfman; Fox Searchlight; 2007)
“An absurd and unconvincing fright pic.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Documentarian George Ratliff (“Hell House”/”Plutonium Circus”/”Purgatory Country”) helms Joshua as an intelligent suspense tale, but it somehow became increasingly less intelligent the further it moved ahead with its revenge plot line. The disturbing house-of-horror thriller reminds one of The Bad Seed (1956), that reportedly started the now popular psycho child themed onslaught. Joshua during its first half keenly unmasks some serious problems behind its featured outwardly perfect family, but when its nightmarish ordeal kicks in with a relentless slow paced barrage of creepy unpleasantness to an upper-class Manhattan dwelling nuclear family the disturbing mannered film turns into an absurd and unconvincing fright pic much like most of the B- film staples of that genre. Joshua never quite recovers its balance from that quick descent.

Wall Street hotshot trader Brad Cairn (Sam Rockwell) and his attractive wife Abby (Vera Farmiga) are living the good life in a spacious luxury Upper East Side apartment that has a Central Park view and they seem like the ideal couple who have it all. When Abby gives birth to their second child Lily, this birth is deeply resented by their gifted, brilliant, super polite, preppie dressed, cultured, musical prodigy and precocious 9-year-old son Joshua (Jacob Kogan). The angelic looking jealous for attention Joshua, who hates sports and loves playing Bartók on the family’s grand piano, begins to act menacingly bizarre while keeping an unflappable formal composure that is eerily more like a Republican adult than a normal child. Abby, who has been seeing a shrink for the last seventeen years, starts becoming unglued as a nervous wreck because of the baby girl’s constant crying and that Joshua starts frightening her by acting peculiar and staring at her in threatening ways. For some reason, she doesn’t want a stranger in the house and refuses to have a nanny, someone she can afford and really needs. The home pressures soon get to Abby, and she becomes unbalanced from post-natal depression and has to be hospitalized. The concerned Brad, an extroverted bland jock type, with the habit of calling his kid “buddy,” accepts that his introverted son is a weirdo nerd and tries to give him some quality time while holding the family together, but soon finds himself stressed-out and overwhelmed by a series of tragic events that throws the household into chaos and with a creepy Joshua seemingly behind a sinister plan for revenge on his family.

Warning: spoiler in the next paragraph.

Ratliff and coscreenwriter David Gilbert tried to make this conceit about parents who are stunned to have a child that they can’t comprehend as being theirs as an observant family drama about how unlovable such an out of place child can be and how that child can put such a severe strain on a family that they can’t recover from it. But they couldn’t close the deal because they never could adequately explore Joshua’s problems except in a superficial way to tag the morbid moppet as an incomprehensible demon, which was a far too lazy thing to do. To explain things further the filmmakers shoot for a big climax, but their climax not only doesn’t make sense but is a letdown. The set-up has led us on in a nerve-tingling way that warrants more of a payoff than in asking us to believe that a 9-year-old is calculating enough to frame for child abuse his worldly shrewd hedge fund whiz dad, who is arrested as an abusive parent when he gets so angry that Joshua disobeys him in a Central Park playground that he slaps the kid before 30 witnesses. It results in Joshua’s empathetic, cultured and gay Uncle Ned (Dallas Roberts), a pianist the kid respects, becoming his guardian and then hiring a nanny for sis. Which is what Joshua wanted all along. The point is that even if some kids can be so manipulative, this film’s version of the parents’ breakdown seemed more unlikely than likely.

The ensemble cast all give terrific performances, the film is well-constructed and the disturbing atmosphere adequately conveys that an unspeakable horror is afoot, but I don’t think there are enough good things there to compensate for a film that is so illogical and at times more grating than scary or enlightening.


Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”