Director: George Ratliff
Screenwriters: David Gilbert, George Ratliff
Producer: Johnathan Dorfman
Cast: Sam Rockwell, Vera Farmiga, Celia Weston, Dallas Roberts
U.S.A., 2006, 105 min.
*One of the most difficult choices anyone has to make is whether or not to have a child. It is a life-altering decision that carries profound consequences even if everything goes right. But what if it goes horribly wrong?
Joshua tells the story of the quintessential well-to-do New York City family: a successful father who works on Wall Street; a mother who chooses to stay at home to care for their newborn daughter; and Joshua, a precocious young piano prodigy. With the newborn's addition, the family's dynamic shifts, and their seemingly idyllic world begins falling apart. But is it just the rigors of caring for a newborn and a little sibling rivalry…or is it something much more sinister?
George Ratliff, who directed the documentary Hell House, successfully transitions to the narrative world with a horror story disguised as a sophisticated family drama. Eschewing dark shadows and recherché camera angles, he compensates for the sinister content by favoring daylight over nighttime and preserving a straightforward, natural approach that defies expectations. Thanks to complex performances from a top-notch cast, Joshua transcends the genre to create a modern horror story that demonstrates how the potential for evil exists in the everyday.
*Summary by Trevor Groth, SUNDANCE Film Programmer
Joshua is a nasty little film that is sunk by its many plot holes and narrative dead-ends despite a high-pedigree cast. Sam Rockwell and Vera Farmiga play parents to an evil little boy, Joshua. I was reminded of better movies, Rosemary’s Baby and The Omen, when Joshua should have strived to be more original. There were some points in this film that tried to be new and clever, but these plot avenues were mostly abandoned in favor of cheap scares. This film played well at Sundance as a genre thriller/horror flick, and I really can’t understand why. If you think about this film for more than a few minutes, it falls apart. Surprisingly, there are moments in this film that still stick with me far after the screening.
The acting here was really quite tremendous. Vera Farmiga, familiar from her role in The Departed, handles a very difficult role; a woman experiencing some severe post-partum depression. She has to act scenes where she is annoying, whiney, and shrieky, but she still manages to hold the audience sympathy. This is partially managed through some good dialogue. At one point, Farmiga’s character, Abby, launches into a tirade against someone in her apartment and her insults are so ludicrously over-the-top that the audience laughs a bit, releasing some of the frustration stored up against Abby. She is also in one of my favorite moments in the film, when she is apologizing to her son, blaming her mood swings on ‘hormones.’ To this comment, Joshua says something like, “I didn’t hear you make any noise, mommy.” The look on Abby’s face is priceless as she realizes what a strange mind her son has to mistake ‘hormones’ for ‘whore moans.’ Unfortunately, one of the biggest missed opportunities has to do with her character. For awhile, the film seems to be making a commentary on the severity of post-partum depression, and I liked that issue being explored. It is a unique issue. But later in the film, it is explained that her moods are being caused by pills, and this revelation completely devalues Abby‘s journey through this depression. As the other partner in this rocky marriage, Sam Rockwell’s character is not given too much complexity, but he creates a lot of unwritten depth in his fight to maintain a relationship with his moody wife and a disturbingly distant son.
Joshua is an evil little child and it is never adequately explained why. I don’t mind if it is never explained why someone is evil, but there are certain points in the film where half-hearted explanations are given, and if the effort is going to be made to explain him, make it clear. There is one fascinating scene in the Egyptian wing of a museum where a half-explored explanation is given that I wish had been further fleshed out. Joshua tells his babysitter a story about an Egyptian God who committed many small evil acts to prevent a larger real evil from coming to pass. It’s a fascinating explanation of Joshua’s actions, but the scene hints that Joshua is destroying his family before they can destroy him, and that doesn’t work. It is made very clear that Joshua’s parents love him and any kid portrayed as intelligent as Joshua is, would have figured that out.
Some other plot holes and strange narrative choices abound. At one point, Joshua finds a family video that shows his parents fighting about him. Okay, that is a labeled family video; why on earth would parents ever keep a tape of their spousal fights, especially out in the open where their children can find it?! There is also a big scene where Joshua leads his mother up to the attic. Something happens to Abby up there that damn near puts her over the edge, but we are never told what happened. It doesn’t seem like the kind of thing that is supposed to remain unseen, almost as if an entire scene was missing. Joshua is a disappointing thriller that is all too derivative of similar films of the past. There are some intriguing storylines abruptly forgotten that might have made a more interesting final film.