Jojo Whilden/Fox Searchlight Pictures
George Ratliff/United States 2007

Despite the startling words that are uttered early on from young Joshua’s (Jacob Kogan) mouth, there’s something continually delayed in this psychological drama from director George Ratliff. Verging on horror with winks toward Rosemary’s Baby (1968) or even more recently, Walter Salles’ Dark Water (2004), with the creeky interiors of a New York apartment (albeit swept free of any nasty supernatural cobwebs), Joshua also brings another bad seed into the gamut of movie youngsters withdrawn into an inexplicable darkness. What puts this film aside, however, is the honesty with which it treats the disintegration of a family. In Joshua, Ratliff attempts to display the tenuous surface of a nine-year old boy’s soul, played with cool aplomb by Wondershowzen habitué Kogan.

Within the story of a young and seemingly stable family torn apart by a manipulative first son, the difficulty of communicating with your own child becomes a terrifying adventure, but a tangible one. When newborn little sister Lily arrives home, the warmth and calm with which she is received soon sours into a stressful and paranoid household. What Joshua confronts in this environment is a certain type of difficulty of communication. Director Ratliff jokes “we made a population control movie.” The child calls out for attention but for what end?

Interestingly, for all his little-man stature, Kogan’s Joshua sounds like a nine-year old, but an incredibly smart and conniving one at that. His front is just enough for us to see through. It seems we applaud too many child actors for acting like adults. And for the character Joshua, we shouldn’t be so prudish as to deny that (all) kids can be cruel.

There is an added dimension to his cruelty, however, and it is hard to determine whether the family’s psychological back-story is refreshingly upfront or simply a convenient place to lay blame. Suffering from severe post-partum depression, Joshua’s mom Abby Cairn, played studiously by Vera Farmiga, falls deeper into a claustrophobic despair. Uncle Ned, played by Dallas Roberts, however, shrugs it off as part of the family history. Nevertheless Ratliff uses this to address the possible reality of the Cairn family’s breakdown.

But we follow the narrative by ill placed steps. We are neither put in the place of the young bad seed nor in that of the parents, but left at a strange distance. Even as each actor plays his or her role with active strength, there is an awkward miscommunication between them inherent in the script. Both Celia Weston as grandmother Hazel Cairn and Roberts as Uncle Ned, however, are appropriately open in their seamless ability to interact with other characters. This isn’t to say that both Sam Rockwell as executive husband Brad Cairn and Farmiga as troubled mother Abby aren’t effective. Rockwell’s delicate mix of unflappability and nervous intensity serve the role well while Farmiga’s despair is uncomfortably real. The family just seems doomed even from the happy beginnings.

This distance, however, is most potent in the film’s style itself. While Benoit Debie’s camerawork in Joshua no way extends towards the superfluous and unnecessary gimmick found in his earlier Irreversible, the look of Joshua is hesitant and confusingly varied. Unfortunately what Ratliff and Debie envisioned as a dramatic trajectory through the use of a variety of lenses and a full-bleach bypass process tends to detract from the story rather than intensifying it. A handful of memorable shots do remain. For example, near the end at the Brooklyn Museum Rockwell clutches his newborn daughter as he realizes the horror of the situation. Here we see that Debie is a skilled craftsman that perhaps sometimes gets carried away with too many tricks.

While both Ratliff and Rockwell cite Michael Haneke’s last film Caché (Hidden) (2005) as an influence, Joshua doesn’t necessarily rise to meet the internal horror one finds in Haneke’s films. But really who can? It’s still an impressive thing to strive for and puts the film into an interesting context. For fans of Rockwell, Joshua is highly recommended as it gives the actor the chance to move away from the more marginalized personalities toward a straight-guy. Even if Rockwell admits “I’m not really the parent type, I have too much respect for parents.” It is possibly this apprehension that fuels the honest approach to his role.

© 2007 Mia Ferm. All rights reserved.

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