2007, R, 90 min. Directed by George Ratliff. Starring Sam Rockwell, Vera Farmiga, Jacob Kogan, Celia Weston, Dallas Roberts, Michael McKean.
REVIEWED By Marc Savlov, Fri., July 13, 2007
There are moments in Joshua that recall, in their spare, sublime paranoiac vision of parenthood, another archetypal cinematic bad seed: no, not Damien of The Omen, but Rosemary Woodhouse's newborn, Adrian, later to become the father of lies, flies, and so on in Rosemary's Baby. Texas-born filmmaker Ratliff, working from a script co-written with David Gilbert, mines a tonally similar vision of the nuclear family as hellish dystopia, and despite the lack of Mia Farrow's crucified-puppy eyes (or anything as freakishly apropos as her third-act Vidal Sassoon hairdo), Joshua succeeds on its own terms, supernatural or not. As the titular preteen, Kogan masterfully bends his New York Upper Westside yuppie parents – Brad (the excellent Sam Rockwell, playing it very straight for a change) and Abby Cairn (Farmiga) – to his iron, Hitchcockian will, parlaying his natty-tot, upper-crust caste into something altogether other. With a new baby sister who cries incessantly while stealing his own familial thunder, young Joshua manages to be both preternaturally normal and disquietingly odd. His genius at the piano becomes a twisted demonstration of postpartum vengeance at his tony school's recital, and while this kid is unlikely to win any Good Housekeeping seals of approval, his subtle, nuanced, unspoken strategies of terror are shocking in their brusqueness. In Joshua's apartment, baby monitors become phone lines to hell, a mother's frazzled nerves lead her into madness, and dear old Dad is made out to be more monstrous than even the bogeyman in the closet. Neither of Ratliff's previously released films (the documentary Hell House about evangelicals or the overlooked Purgatory County) indicated the director could wield his camera with such a nuanced sense of impending doom and dreamy, chilly dread, which only makes Joshua that much more powerful a film. It should be mandatory viewing for right-to-lifers and prospective parents as well as fans of creepy, crawly filmmaking. See p.52 of this week's Screens section for an interview with George Ratliff.