Never beat up your kid in public on the weekend.
—Chester (Michael McKean)
The first scene in Joshua is both banal and ominous. Young boys are playing soccer, the camera focused on their thin, be-socksed legs as they kick the ball and dash across the grass. The idyll is instantly adjusted when the coach yells out, “You’re playing like a bunch of little girls!”
It’s a small thing, really, but it sets up the tension that will drive George Ratliff’s urban horror movie. The trouble begins for nine-year-old Joshua (Jacob Kogan) when his father Brad (Sam Rockwell) pulls him away from the soccer game to attend the birth of his sister Lily. The first glimpse Joshua has of the intruder is from a hospital room door: he looks in on mom Abby (Vera Farmiga) and dad cooing over their precious bundle. Grim and pale, Joshua here adopts the demon-child demeanor he will maintain for the rest of George Ratliff’s film.
At first, Joshua invites you almost to imagine the boy’s sense of rejection and growing frustration. Back at their posh Manhattan apartment—a scene marked “19 Days Old”—Brad pushes the beloved family dog away from the baby, obsessively filming her every breath, while his parents, Joe (Tom Bloom) and Hazel (Celia Weston), beam. When Abby’s gay brother Ned (Dallas Roberts) wonders whether she’s felt any “blues” or “blahs,” she assures him that she has the “requisite medication, and, lower-voiced, “It’s nothing like the last time.” At last Hazel turns to Joshua at the piano, playing the same Bartók sonata that usually earns him praise, and asks, “Do you think we can have a little intermission?” Visibly upset, he makes his way to the doorway—yet again paused-caught-menacing in a liminal space—and proceeds to puke all over the polished hardwood floor. The adults look on in mute horror, not a one moving to comfort him.
“I don’t like soccer,” Joshua says later that night. Tucked into bed, he looks up at Brad, who does his inept best to reassure him: it’s okay not to play soccer, it’s okay not to like baseball. Joshua persists. “Do you ever feel weird about me, your weird son?” Brad blanches, caught out with no ready answer except the usual platitudes. So now you know: Joshua—brilliant student, musical prodigy—is feeling unloved, jealous, and afraid. And he’s weird.
All of these feelings, including the weirdness, are increasingly manifest. Abby starts hearing noises in Lily’s room at night (baby monitor close-ups appear to confirm her fear), Joshua continues to lurk in doorways, and Brad does his best to lose himself in racquetball, his iPod, and his Wall Street office (where he works for Michael McKean, of all people). Home is increasingly excruciating, as Lily can’t stop crying and Abby slides into a daunting postpartum depression, desolate over her daughter’s noisy discontent and her husband’s seeming abandonment. “Mommy’s very tired,” Brad doesn’t explain to his son.
Characterized by repeated, precisely composed and internal frames, Joshua carefully builds a case against the boy, his actions unseen but affecting Abby apparently by the hour. During a family dinnertime, he watches them with Lily, then announces that someone died in their apartment. “Someone has died on pretty much every inch of this planet,” he informs his parents, their startled faces nearly frozen as they look back at him. Again with the creepiness: after studying mummies, Joshua disembowels his stuffed Pandy, explaining to a dumbfounded Brad that the Egyptians broke a dead body’s nose and “drained the brain through its opening.”
Joshua focuses most of his surgical unkindness at obvious and immediate targets: Lily, Abby, and Hazel. (There is no moment more disturbing than watching Joshua watch his mother in the kitchen late at night, as she steps on broken glass and smears the blood all over her legs, lamenting the loss of a favorite pair of tall red boots.) His thought process remains more or less opaque, but he’s plainly testing limits and expectations: when Hazel takes him to a church meeting, he comes back to tell his parents, “I want to be born again, I want to get right with Jesus.” Abby, on crutches following the slashed foot incident, calls her mother-in-law a “narrow-minded, medieval old scold.” Hazel suggests she “try Christ instead of all those pills.” Brad has no hope of placating anyone, least of all his icy-eyed child.
The scene represents a breaking point for Abby and Brad, who imagined they’d “let [their] kids make up their own minds about religion” when the time came. But it’s not just a crisis between generations (“Stop playing city,” Hazel tells Brad, “and come home”), it’s also the moment when Joshua witnesses the effects of his own playing. That he comprehends his privilege in a particularly insidious way becomes clear when, a day later, he’s approached by a homeless man in the park. “I’ll give you five dollars if I can throw a rock at you,” offers the child. The man looks at him, the scene ends. You don’t even need to know what happens next to think this kid’s pathology has crossed into some other immoral dimension, beyond just hating his sister and neglectful parents.
Despite several such creepy moments, the film’s fundamental narrative is more wearying than horrifying. Certainly, the monster child plot is familiar, but the easy fit of the “bad mothers” into Joshua’s apparent worldview—they’re weak, needy, angry—is downright disappointing. While Brad is by no means a conventional guy hero, he’s no match for the scheming, ingenious boy. Joshua’s story overwhelms all.