Reviewed by Debi Moore
Starring Sam Rockwell, Vera Farmiga, Jacob Kogan, Celia Weston, Dallas Roberts, Michael McKean
Directed by George Ratliff
Distributed by 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment
The first time I watched Joshua, I was put off by both its annoyingly ambiguous approach of keeping most of the action offscreen and the unrealistic actions and reactions of its three lead characters. Much like my compatriot Nomad, who wrote the review for Joshua’s limited theatrical release, I found it to be “not a horrible film, but one that doesn’t know what it wants to be.” On its surface it’s a contemporary tale of upscale Manhattan couple Brad and Abby (Rockwell and Farmiga) welcoming home their newborn baby girl, Lily, and the roughly 90-day adjustment period they and their precocious, highly intelligent young son Joshua (Kogan) go through. But disturbingly familiar patterns of mental instability and a failure to communicate between husband & wife and parents & child begin to emerge. Has Lily’s arrival somehow also birthed within Joshua a budding sociopath who intends to do away with his defenseless little sister? Is Abby slipping back into the postpartum depression she experienced after Joshua was born? Will Brad keep screwing up at work and lose his job along with his wife and his own sanity? Are the construction noises Brad and Abby hear coming from upstairs real or just another aspect of Joshua’s skill at feeding their delusions? Or, even better, is there some sort of supernatural element to everyone’s aberrant behavior? Honestly, I couldn’t have cared less. Yes, the acting and filming techniques are exceptional, but so much is left unsaid and undone by Brad to get to the bottom of the situation and save his family, and so many events unfold just a bit too conveniently to be believed, that by the end of Joshua’s almost two-hour runtime, I was left unfulfilled and irate at the ultimate waste of such amazing talent.
But then last night, in preparation for writing this review, I re-watched the film while listening to the commentary by director Ratliff and his co-writer David Gilbert, and it was an infinitely more enjoyable experience. Yes, there is still the glaring lack of communication issue to contend with along with the mind-bogglingly poor parenting skills of Brad and Abby that I presume the audience is just supposed to overlook, but overall everything else falls into place and makes much more sense in light of Ratliff’s and Gilbert’s remarks and clarifications. But should a movie need explanation? The consensus seems to be about 50-50. Joshua has popped up on a number of year-end “best of” lists for 2007, but plenty of others seem to feel as I do that it’s less a nice and taut contribution in the creepy kid sub-genre and more a straight dramatic glimpse into a dysfunctional family dynamic that borrows elements from horror strictly to make a social statement and look smart. Not that there’s anything wrong with the latter approach. It’s just that for those of us hoping to find a contemporary cousin to The Bad Seed, The Innocents, or The (original) Omen, Joshua falls quite short. However, it does almost make up for its storytelling deficiencies in the performance arena.
I’d be hard pressed to think of another recent thriller with a better ensemble cast. The naturalness of the actors and their effortless body language (especially between Farmiga and Rockwell) are quite extraordinary and very Euro-retro. Joshua’s ability to sneak up on people, in particular dear dad, is unnerving and his “frightening stillness” (to quote the commentary) palpable. I couldn’t help but think of another awkward yet brilliant serial killer who started out in much the same fashion: Dexter Morgan from the Showtime series Dexter. But Dexter had his adopted father, Harry, to help him find a way to live with who he is; poor Josh is stuck with Brad. Instead of trying to get psychiatric assistance for or even openly confronting his son, Brad immaturely opts to silently face off against him in a borderline over-the-top one-upmanship that culminates in a battle over Lily and a painfully contrived ending for the film. Who’s the adult here? Oh, yes, it’s Abby’s bubbly gay brother Ned (Roberts), who apparently is the only one Joshua feels a kinship with. The John Ritter-esque Roberts is dry and droll and very subtle — a perfect choice for the role. As are Weston as Brad’s religious to the extreme mother and McKean as his initially sympathetic but ultimately disgusted boss. New York, too, plays a part in the story, first seeming open and inviting, only to turn claustrophobic and menacing just like Joshua himself. Ultimately the dichotomy between the skill of Ratliff and his actors and the weakness of how the story plays out makes evaluating Joshua a tough task.
Fortunately, however, the DVD extras are much easier to rate. The aforementioned commentary is a great listen. Ratliff and Gilbert have an ease of conversation between them and tell amusing stories that help relieve any disappointment over what’s happening onscreen, their ongoing banter about the various hair styles in the film being especially entertaining. In a few instances Gilbert acts as interviewer, often asking exactly what I wanted to know. They dissect almost every aspect – the shifts in camera position and lighting, the method acting background of the stars, the writing process – but none of it gets boring. In fact, I highly recommend watching Joshua the first time through with the commentary on; it doesn’t spoil a thing and, except for a few instances, provides a much more interesting soundtrack for the film than the actual dialogue.
Five very brief deleted scenes are also included; from an acting standpoint they’re of the same quality as the finished product, and from a storytelling standpoint they do little to improve upon it. Footage of Ratliff interviewing some of the cast members, Kogan’s audition, and a music video of the Dave Matthews song “Fly,” which closes out the picture nicely and for now can only be found on the DVD, round out the special features. It’s a decent package – I can’t think of much else that could have been included other than maybe a featurette with some experts talking about postpartum depression, but after watching Farmiga’s disturbingly realistic onscreen meltdown, who needs that?
With a positive second viewing bolstering its score, Joshua garners a recommendation from this Woman. But it’s not without a disclaimer to leave your expectations at the door and be ready to suspend a whole heckuva lot of disbelief. All the while marveling at how you’d really like to root for somebody in this flick if only they weren’t all so fucking nuts!
4 out of 5
3 1/2 out of 5
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