Directed by George Ratliff
With the B-movie premise and gaps in logic aside, Joshua is a chilling exercise in upper-class familial strife. Religious pressure, post-partum depression, a new-born with unending fits of crying and noisy upstairs renovations all test the patience of Brad and Abby Cairn (Sam Rockwell and Vera Farmiga, respectively) but it’s their almost demon-like nine-year-old son Joshua (Jacob Kogan) that tips the scale on this chic Manhattan couple.
Joshua might be a musical prodigy on the piano and an overachiever in his class (his teachers suggest he skip two grades) but he’s little more than an enigma to his parents. He’s the kind of child that gets purposefully tagged in dodge ball so that he can sit out and continue to read a book. He keeps his tie on tight and his hair perfectly coiffed. He walks with stiff arms and his sunken eyes stare out with a blank expression. And he has an unhealthy fascination with embalming. Even the child himself frequently questions the foundations of his parents’ purported unconditional love.
So, like any psychopathic boy genius, he puts that love to the test by aggravating the once peaceful newborn, spooking his parents at the turn of every corner, causing all manner of calamities and playing head games with his slightly unbalanced mother.
In due manner, the film threatens to veer off into the preposterous but it is anchored by the crackling smart and funny screenplay, and the remarkable performances of its cast, particularly Rockwell and Farmiga, who deliver some of their finest work. Farmiga naturally shifts from prize wife to unstable invalid, while Rockwell allows his easygoing manner to crack slowly, becoming the hardened father who can’t quite figure out how to punish such a child.
Director George Ratliff does an impeccable job of guiding this thriller through the cold atmospherics of a convincing family anxiety drama, with muted colours and predominantly restrained performances. The director also shows Zen-like control by keeping the violence off-screen and working with nothing but suggestion. Ratliff’s smart enough to know that you don’t need onscreen gore to curdle the blood of the audience, just put a creepy nine-year-old on the piano and let all the wrong notes fall into the right places.
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