An old-school thriller in the style of 1968's "Rosemary's Baby" and 1973's "Don't Look Now," the sublimely unnerving "Joshua" embraces the simple power of suggestion over cheap jump scares and gore galore. In their observant and tragic portrait of an upper-class family in a state of collapse, writer-director George Ratliff (2002's excellent documentary "Hell House") and first-time co-writer David Gilbert manage to get under the viewer's skin without so much as one scene of violence. The creep-factor is all in the detailsthe mood, the character depth, the multilayered story complexity and appropriate lack of easy answers. Indeed, the abysmal 2006 remake of "The Omen
" could have learned a thing or two from what "Joshua" offers up.
9-year-old Joshua Cairn (Jacob Kogan) is a little different than most of the other boys his age. A piano prodigy more interested in reading books and learning about Egyptian history than playing sports and rough-housing around, his insulated Manhattan lifestyle with loving parents Brad (Sam Rockwell) and Abby (Vera Farmiga) is dramatically altered when a newborn baby sister is added to the equation. No longer the center of attention, Joshua is suddenly faced with doubts about whether his mom and dad love him and how he fits within the family dynamic. As his behavior becomes stranger, Abby's mental state deteriorates under the pressures of caring for a restless, crying infant during all hours of the day and night. Brad, often busy at work, isn't too concerned until it becomes readily apparent that young Joshua may be capable of far darker acts than he could ever imagine.
"Joshua" is a masterful study in subtlety that proves horror films don't necessarily require gouged eyes and decapitations to earn their place in the higher echelons of the genre. Take the recent "Captivity
," for example, seen by myself less than an hour before "Joshua." The former spared no expense on the red stuff, but that apparently didn't leave enough money for acquiring a good script. The end result was a movie that was unscary and dramatically cold. By comparison, this modern-day "bad seed" tale expertly weaves a spell of genuine frights and jittery tension even in the most innocuous of scenes.
As a character, Joshua is neither demonized nor one-dimensionalized; he isn't a descendant of the devil like Damien in "The Omen
," but a human child who is psychologically disturbed and, to make matters worse, feeling neglected at the same time that he is exposed to a number of damaging revelations that force him to reevaluate the way he sees his parents and the world at large. Joshua unveils himself, little by little, to be devious and calculating, but even these turns are eerily plausible. He's an alternately horrifying and devastatingly tragic title figure, dangerous and in need of help, and newcomer Jacob Kogan is perfectly cast in the role. Kogan has the talent and lack of affectations that he can be unsettling without trying too hard and then turn around and break your heart. It's a stunning debut turn for someone so young.
Joshua is the main attraction, but it is his parents whose eyes we as the audience see through. Vera Farmiga (2006's "The Departed
") is an emotional wreck for the bulk of the running time as mother Abby. It initially seems as if she is the crazy one in the family, prone to unpleasant mood swings and at her wit's end over dealing with her fussy new daughter. As she fights to keep it together for the love of her son, the question becomes: is Abby losing her mind, or is it all being meticulously orchestrated by Joshua? The answer is left somewhat ambiguousmy inclination is that her problems stem from bothand that is as it should be. A scene in which Abby and Joshua play hide-and-seek is dripping with the kind of suspense rarely seen and captured, and it's a testament to director George Ratliff that he achieves this despite little in the way of action occurring.
As father Brad, Sam Rockwell (2003's "Matchstick Men
") is an unsung dramatic actor who finds the truth in each moment and holds on it. The way in which his character metamorphosizes is disconcerting and yet absolutely electrifying, going from a happy-go-lucky dad with undying love for Joshua to a beaten-down soul on the verge of losing everything and questioning who his son really is. In a nicely nuanced and understated supporting turn, Dallas Roberts (2006's "Flicka
") deserves notice as Abby's brother Ned. That Ned is pretty obviously gay but it is sparsely brought up and never made issue of is a pleasing sidenote to the strength of the material.
Intelligent and realistic about its subject matter, the running themes, including sibling jealousy, familial dissidence, and parent-child relations, consistently hit a relevant note. Ultimately, it is the knowledge of all the horrific possibilities for what could happen rather than the foresight of what does happen where the film ratchets up and then maintains its entrancing levels of fear and dread. Sleekly photographed by Benoit Debie and brilliantly scored by Nico Muhlythe use of the off-key piano chords are an invaluable atmospheric addition"Joshua" is a haunting and evocative motion picture that stays with you.