Echoing the likes of recent kid-centric chillers like Birth or even the re-booted The Omen and continuing in the spine-tingling tradition of Hitchcock, Polanski and Kubrick, documentarian turned feature filmmaker George Ratliff's Joshua confidently builds up to a subtle, slightly ragged twist that will set all but the steeliest nerves aflutter. It's a supremely confident fiction debut, not only for the director/co-writer, but also young star Jacob Kogan, who portrays the sinister, titular child.
The Cairns -- hedge fund manager Brad (Sam Rockwell), stay-at-home mom Abby (Vera Farmiga) -- are celebrating the birth of daughter Lily. They already have one son, 9-year-old Joshua (Kogan), who seems to greet his sister's arrival indifferently. Not long after Lily joins the Manhattan household, peculiar and frightening events begin to happen with alarming frequency. What was once a comfortable, upper-middle-class existence is, by turns, under siege from mysterious forces that could be as simple as a case of post-partum depression on steroids or something far more sinister.
Forgive the limited synopsis, but the less said about Joshua going in, the better primed you are to enjoy the steady, sturdily built shocks Ratliff and co-writer David Gilbert have in store. There's nothing out and out original about the film, which skates a little too close to the works of Polanski and Hitchcock, in particular (even managing to evoke the likes of Taylor Hackford's The Devil's Advocate in some scenes), but the skill and obvious love of the psychological horror genre elevates what would otherwise be a very pedestrian effort -- the filmmakers are just a little too enamored with skimpy religious caricatures and strain to connect some of the dots later in the film, ending on an ambiguous note that feels unearned.
But where Joshua truly shines is its actors -- Sam Rockwell, so often a goofball or unhinged psychopath, excels as the increasingly harried father, but the film belongs to Vera Farmiga. Far and away, her portrayal of a mother on the edge, slowly, steadily fraying under intense self-doubt, is at once harrowing and exhilarating. It's piercing stuff and stays with you long after the final frames have faded. Kogan is adequate in his debut, but a few key moments are hampered by his relative lack of experience -- I'm not saying Joshua would've been a masterpiece if he were a better actor, merely that it would've been that much more effective. As it is, Joshua is a fantastic little white-knuckler, a study in quietly escalating terror tailor-made for creeping you out some Saturday night at home.
Presented in an anamorphic widescreen transfer of its original aspect ratio of 1.85:1, Joshua is a film stocked with vivid, precise visuals. Imbued with a distinct '70s vibe, the palette is cunningly manipulated throughout the story. There's just a hint of grain, but it doesn't detract and in fact, enhances the overall mood. A clean, clear visual representation.
Plenty of atmospherics are on display throughout and the evocative score lingers beneath most scenes, so the DTS 5.1 and Dolby Digital 5.1 tracks are given plenty to do. I sampled both tracks and found the DTS to be ever so slightly warmer and smoother. Still, both tracks are very solid. An optional Spanish Dolby 2.0 stereo track is included, as are optional English and Spanish subtitles.
Ratliff and Gilbert contribute a slightly smarmy but informative commentary track, touching on technical and creative aspects of the film. A hefty batch of cast and crew interviews (Kogan, Rockwell, Farmiga, Ratliff, producer Johnathan Dorfman and production designer Roshelle Berliner) are on hand, playable separately or all together. The film's Internet ad campaign is included, as is Kogan's three minute, 26 second audition tape (presented in non-anamorphic widescreen) and the four minute, 11 second music video for Dave Matthews' "Fly" (presented in Dolby 2.0 stereo and non-anamorphic widescreen). Five deleted scenes (presented in non-anamorphic widescreen) are playable separately or all together for an aggregate of six minutes, 47 seconds; the film's theatrical trailer and trailers for Wrong Turn 2, The Tripper and Cover complete the disc.
Joshua is a fantastic little white-knuckler, a study in quietly escalating terror tailor-made for creeping you out some Saturday night at home. Sam Rockwell, so often a goofball or unhinged psychopath, excels as an increasingly harried father, but the film belongs to Vera Farmiga. Far and away, her portrayal of a mother on the edge, slowly, steadily fraying under intense self-doubt, is at once harrowing and exhilarating. Recommended.