Monday, January 14, 2008


What happens when two people just can't make a normal kid? That's the problem that Brad and Abby Cairn have in co-writer/director George Ratliff's twisted thriller JOSHUA (***1/2). Brad, expertly played by the underrated Sam Rockwell, is a hot-shot NYC hedge fund manager living in a beautiful apartment hanging over Central Park. His plucky, pill-popping wife Abby, a manic Vera Farmiga, has just given birth to their second child. Their first, the strangely cold nine year old Joshua (the amazing Jacob Kogan) is a precocious lad; comfortable in a blazer, tie, and khakis and making it clear that he "doesn't like sports," Jacob spends his days preforming surgeries on his stuffed animals, reading about mummification, and sneaking up on his parents during the night. Jacob, an odd-duck to be sure, is also suspicious of his new baby sister. We learn that Joshua wasn't a baby from heaven; he cried exclusively upong leaving the hospital and was a basket case to raise. Looks like his new baby sister might be offering up more of the same; constantly crying (is Joshua secretly terrorizing her?) and never happy, the baby makes life even tougher for Abby, who slowly starts to unravel even more than she already has. Ratliff, eschewing the supernatural, spins a wicked tale of a child who is just not right; he's an early serial killer/sociopath (potentially...) and the dread that hangs over every scene of this unnerving little movie is palpable at every moment. It's an uncomfortable movie to watch at times, specifically because what you expect to happen doesn't necessarily come to pass. Brad and Abby's apartment is a wonder to behold and Benoit Deibe's deceptively beautiful cinematography is precise and stylized without ever calling attention to itself. Carefully framing people and objects within the cold, OCD-inspired mise en scene, Ratliff wants you to be aware of your surroundings yet also tricked by the normalcy of it all. The sinister musical score by Nico Muhly, aided by Joshua playing the piano throughout the film, adds a layer of suspense without resorting to cheap, musical scare-tactics. That's what sets JOSHUA apart from so many cliched horror thrillers; what you expect to happen to the characters never really happens and where the story ends up going is fairly unpredictable. This is a realistic chiller, and since it never dips into the supernatural like ROSEMARY'S BABY or THE OMEN, there is something genuinely scary about the film; kids like this are out there, lurking in the shadows, waiting to become the monsters that they threaten to be. I wouldn't advise any couples with newborns to check out this nasty little film. One thing I'd like to add is that the ending, while devious to the extreme, requires a lot of things to fall into place for little Joshua. But by the end, Ratliff's focused storytelling and impressive ear for dialogue has cast its spell over the audience and you're left thinking...hey...are my kids A-OK?

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