Ask any parent - children are a clever combination of knowing innocence and underlying evil. Sure, most of that assessment comes from the concept that, as supposedly guiltless blanks, they are capable of acts outside their sphere of conscientiousness or moral certainty. Or it could be pure projection, the belief that we place upon the unformed tabula rosa tyke all manner of significance that really isn't there. Whatever the case may be, drama has loved to explore the notion of kids as corruptible wickedness. From The Bad Seed to The Good Son, brats as bastions of Satanic malevolence have given the supernatural stuff of The Omen a run for its diabolic money. Now comes Joshua, a Sundance sensation that's not to be confused with a 2001 film of the same name dealing with the Second Coming of Christ. Here we have urbanites dealing with a son who's simultaneously smart and disturbed, a wee one capable of the most craven acts if given the proper catalyst. And as the film opens, our maniacal little boy has found the proper mechanism to channel his threat.
With the birth of their daughter Lily, everything should be sunny for the Cairn family. Sure, Dad's job as a stock broker/portfolio manager has seen better days, and Mom's post-partum depression looks to be returning, but little Joshua is adjusting well - or is he? The precocious nine year old, smarter and more sensible than everyone in his grade, is gifted. He's super intelligent, musically talented...and uncontrollably evil. He sees his baby sister as a problem, preventing him from getting his way. And thus begins a battle of wills between parents and child, Mom Abby becoming more and more unglued while Dad Brad seems lost for what to do. Even do-goody Grandmother Hazel has a hard time with the challenging child. Yet when little accidents start to happen, the infant crying uncontrollably all the time, it looks like the Cairns will be in for much more than a minor adjustment period. Joshua is prepared to make sure of that.
Joshua is best described as a tire blow out type of experience. If you believe that co-writer/director George Ratliff and scribe David Gilbert skirt potential disaster with how they pull the finale out of a grossly illogical and dangerous skid, then you'll celebrate this Hitchcokian homage. On the other hand, if you follow the Roger Ebert theory of suspense, and realize that all of this evil kid mishagosh could have been prevented with the asking of some crucial questions and the involvement of trained professionals, then no amount of last minute steering could prevent the oncoming cinematic car wreck. If mood and tone where treasure, Ratliff would own Warren Buffett. In many ways, it's Joshua's sole saving grace. The acting is imperfect and uneven, the overall look rather sterile and insular. Even the tricky balance between the suggested and the sinister is handled with ham fists rather than corrupt kid gloves. Yet because of the way in which the narrative tries to maneuver between the idyllic life of a well to do Manhattan couple, a clearly exceptional child, and the rising fatalistic feelings between the two, we get locked into the scattered, strained rhythms. It may just be part of a need to see how it all turns out, but we definitely find moments of effectiveness along the way.
Unfortunately, in order to discuss the film, the ending will have to be described. This means a massive SPOILER warning goes out right now to anyone who wants to see what happens without the benefit of foresight. Last chance to jump to the next paragraph. Okay...when the last act song is sung by our title character, we learn that the birth of his baby sister gave Joshua the opportunity to get rid of his parents and work things out so that he could wind up with his gay, Broadway composer uncle. Everything he did from the moment of her arrival - the obsession with mummification, the small acts of insolence, the outright acts of violence - were developed as cues for anyone on the outside looking in. Mom's history of nuttiness and Dad's tripwire temper were equally exploited, and the unnecessary intrusion of his Jesus freak Grandma mandated the only overt public act. By pushing the proper buttons, using his unfathomable intellect in a slow escalation of tensions, he could get his mother committed, his father charged with child abuse, and his Nana DOA. Certainly, a lot of circumstantial coincidence has to occur in order for his plan to work, and he has to really KNOW his parents to guarantee their preordained participation. So when we learn the lengths this child will go to get his way, we're supposed to shiver in a silent scream.
Yet it's hard to say if Ratliff is successful in his setup. Unlike M. Night Shyamalan, who carefully crafted every element of The Sixth Sense to feed his last act twist, the screenplay drops too many obvious serial killer sentiments to make Joshua's acts totally transparent. There's even the mandatory moment where son praises his loving mother before sealing her fate. Had our villain been a little more subtle, less of an outright psycho savant with an unnatural ability to play people, chess like, against each other, maybe Joshua would be more meaningful. Seeing your average little squirt suddenly mastermind the undoing of his family, hints in plain view but not warning sign obvious, could have come across as evocative and eerie. Even better, Ratliff could have found actors who didn't Jack Nicholson their way through the genre. Sam Rockwell, usually very good, seems disinterested from the moment we meet him, and Vera Farmiga (a million miles away from The Departed), is clearly a nut job waiting to crack. Even Celia Weston's Bible thumping granny is a deadweight giveaway. It's all part of Joshua's battle of believability. Parts of the film feel natural and unforced. But more times than not, Ratliff and Gilbert keep tempting fate by overstaying - and overstating - their intentions. It makes this otherwise interesting thriller a tad too passive to play right...or fair.
Offered by Fox in one of those highly annoying "Screener Only" review presentations (meaning we get the floating corporate logo intermittently in the corners of the screen) the 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen looks excellent. Ratliff works in a muted palette that's supposed to suggest the clinical, calculated world of Joshua's mind, and the heavily compressed and frequently pixilated image does it's best to recreate said scheme. Here's hoping the true tech specs live up to the filmmaker's ambitions.
If you're looking for creepy ambience and a sense of spookiness, the differing mixes offered here will definitely do the trick. Of course, grading the overall effectiveness of the tracks (a good multichannel Dolby Digital DTS as well as a standard 5.1 mix) is marred by the screener policy provided by the company. Here's hoping the final product is as polished as this preview.
As for the added content, the same "who knows" caveats apply. What is currently present on the screener is a decent (if slightly self-congratulatory) commentary track from Ratliff and Gilbert, a collection of cast and crew interviews, a look at the audition tape of tiny star Jacob Kogan (who plays the title role) and a music video. There's also some deleted scenes (of minor interest only) and a trailer. Toss in the Internet campaign used to advertise the film, and you've got a decent if slightly unimpressive collection of extras. If they all make it to the DVD proper, it will be a nice supplement to a relatively unknown offering.
When push comes to shove, Joshua is actually a pretty ballsy movie - just not in the ways you think. Instead of taking the evil child ideal to unknown or novel extremes, the filmmakers simply make the audience wait...and wait...and wait...for something wicked to work its way into the plot. Quite a daring conceit, especially when you're trying for dense dread reckoning. Still, this isn't a complete disaster, and for those who enjoy bloodless shivers and moody macabre, there's a lot to like. As a result, a rating of Recommended is offered. If it weren't for the ending, however, and its intimation of much deeper horrors, this would have been a 105 minute waste of time. Instead, there's enough evocative creepiness to pull us through until then. Children as monsters may seem like a callous cliché, but there are possibilities in such a portrait. Joshua doesn't believe in such jaded juvenilia. Keeping things calm and calculated is it's reason for being - and the reason why it ultimately fails to fulfill its premise promise.
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