Directed by George Ratliff
People have children to create their own family unit. This little pink baby comes into your life, and looking into his eyes, there’s no way you can conceive he could ever do anything wrong. It’s instant love. In some cases though, something is already wrong. The body is a mass of complex chemicals, and if that balance is thrown off in any way, it can alter things as minimal as personality and as chaotic as the severity of mood swings. To further gel a child’s development, you have the effects of environment, upbringing, teaching and stimuli like television and such. All of this gets rolled into your little person, and if you aren’t careful, he can become something you would have never imagined. Your child could be the blessing you always dreamed of or your own personal hell.
Enter Joshua, a little man living in the city with his fairly young parents and their newborn baby girl. Joshua is an extremely gifted child who is not only ridiculously smart but has an aptitude for music as well, but something isn’t quite right. His reactions to things are slightly off. His questions about the levels of love a parent should have for a child seem disconcerting. There is something going on in that little head, and by all indications it’s not all sunshine and rainbows. When you don’t suspect children are capable of true evil, imagine the damage they can cause before someone catches them. Joshua has a plan, and not all of his family members are included in it.
Sam Rockwell plays Brad Cairn, a successful businessman who seems to be struggling with what’s expected of him as an up-and-comer in New York socialite circles and his yearnings to escape it all with a little good music and the love of his family. A certain simplicity. Rockwell is 100% believable in every moment of this film and seems fully immersed in the story, which has some very quirky moments. He’s playing a very real character that isn’t beyond a common person’s understanding, unlike the super affluent family from The Omen, so he is very accessible and his reactions all make sense. Vera Farmiga’s Abby seems written as a bit of a mess. Without revealing too much, I’ll just say Abby goes a little crazy as the film builds, adding chaotic moments to an already uncertain tone. Again, Abby is played with an extraordinary level of commitment that comes of as truly genuine, but I felt no connection between husband and wife. It’s as if someone plucked two characters from different movies and dropped them into this film together and then tried to convince you that it all fits perfectly.
Celia Weston plays Brad’s holy roller mother, Hazel, whose evangelical nature, impressively, does not go over the top. Hazel provides further opportunities for the young Joshua to manipulate the family by casting doubt on people’s motivations and escalating small conflicts into larger ones. To that end, Hazel becomes a perfect tool for Joshua’s ultimate plan. Speaking of Joshua, Jacob Kogan pulls off an incredible level of apathy in this film. That doesn’t seem like a large feat, but when you are surrounded by A level actors giving it their all and you are told you must stay cold and calculating, it must be a challenge, even for a fully grown actor. Kogan’s stone face isn’t one without any visible emotion. It’s the wheels turning behind the eyes. It’s a chess player thinking 10 moves ahead. Finally, we have Dallas Roberts as Joshua’s Uncle Ned, who remains a character largely untouched, at least personally, by the insane events unfolding, giving us a bit of an outsider’s perspective. Ned, while enjoyable to watch as he provides lighter moments to a heavy piece, is a character that I couldn’t wrap my brain around. At times Ned sits with his sister, who is not acknowledging that this is her brother in front of her. A kiss on the lips ... a breast-feeding pump in action in full view ... where exactly did this crew grow up??!! There are also times where the writing suggests Ned’s character may be gay and others where he appears to be checking out women. To say the least he’s all over the place, making it hard to soak up the character in any way.
Joshua is a disjointed piece, weighted down with indie shooting techniques and quick cutaways. At times you are meant to feel that you are an unnamed character in the room, given your own perspective, and others, the viewpoint becomes a traditional focused camera cycling between angles and characters with Hollywood slickness. Director George Ratliff explained this is very deliberate, meant to build the intensity of the film and seriousness of the actions being viewed from your comfy theater chair. This would be all well and good if there weren’t moments of hilarity peppered all through the last half of the movie. Father and son face off at the dinner table. Father eyeballs son, squinting to see if he can figure out his little boy. Will he sit there quietly eating or will he jump up from the table, knife in hand, and attempt to cut my head off? No ... he’s too smart for that. It would probably be poison. Wait. Did he already poison my food? BAA!! This is all said through facial expressions and dialogue disguised as small talk. It becomes more about what is not said rather than what is, and you can’t help but laugh out loud.
Odd pieces strewn together. Mixed emotions laid out on a table and forced to fit. These are phrases I’d use to quantify Joshua. You are given a powerful moment, but instead of exploring that revelation, the film cuts and jumps into a new moment. This jerking action would forcibly yank me out of a connection and figuratively hit reset. In the end Joshua is a drama, but it's also a horror movie on a very realistic level. That is to say Joshua is as much a horror film as any other news story about family atrocity in America. It’s all believable and remarkably smart, but it’s not scary in the least. This is not a horrible film, but one that doesn’t know what it wants to be. If this is a tale of an evil child systematically tearing his own family apart, then you probably shouldn’t be making me laugh. If this is a thought-provoking drama about how parents can color the development of a child and inadvertently make him a future serial killer, then you should go that way full force and develop each individual fully so we might feel their pain. Primarily, if this were to be a straight-up horror film, we need to be able to watch young Joshua as he sets things in motion so we can be allowed to yell at the screen "DON’T GO IN THERE!!" In a sense we are only allowed to enter the room after the chaos is caused and watch the aftermath. People mourning a loss are generally never scary.
Joshua is going to be seen as a film that’s hard to pin down. On one hand the actors pull off some amazing work; yet, I couldn’t help being bored a lot of the time. Joshua is its own odd little person who seems to want to fit in but lacks the social graces, complete with an ending that had me scratching my head, laughing and saying, "What the fuck was that??!!" Joshua takes on the beat of an indie film, so be prepared for that sort of storytelling if you choose to take it on. If you wanted the ultimate evil little kid film that will send chills through your body, this isn’t your ride.
2 out of 5
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