Rarely does your marital status factor in to whether or not you should see a movie. However, Joshua is a film that is bent on terrifying parents. Director George Ratliff sums it up perfectly in his commentary for the film: what if the person who you were most afraid of was your own child? Joshua isn’t a simple re-write of The Omen, however, and even though the influence of that 1976 horror masterpiece looms heavy over Joshua, the demons aren’t as much spiritual as they are personal.
In the opening scene, David Cairn (Sam Rockwell) is watching his son Joshua (Jacob Kogan making his debut) play soccer. David receives a call and learns that his wife Abby (The Departed‘s Vera Farmiga) is giving birth to their second child: Lily. David takes Joshua by the arm and rushes across the street. So caught up in the heat of the moment, it takes a moment for David to realize that Joshua is still next to the field, a river of cars separating them. It’s the first of many instances in which the Cairn family is separated from their son: hospital glass, school stages, and even the crosscut editing puts young Joshua at a physical (and emotional) distance.
As Lily is delivered into the world, David and Abby shower their young newborn with attention, leaving Joshua all by himself. But why should they worry? Joshua’s an A+ student, a Bartok-loving piano prodigy, and a solitary, polite young man. In many ways, he is the “ideal child”, but once that notion is firmly established, the movie begins to travel slowly down its own dark, twisted road.
It all starts with Lily’s welcome-home party, where David’s mother Hazel (the always-reliable Celia Weston) and Abby’s brother Ned (Dallas Roberts) are more than eager to shower attention onto the new child. Yet as the baby talk continues, Joshua soon vomits without reason, immediately apologizing to the gathered company. While being tucked into bed that night by his father, Joshua tells David “You don’t have to love me, you know. It’s not like it’s a rule or anything.”
It is here where the film begins introducing two very different concepts: sibling rivalry and postpartum depression. The former is hinted at though never fully explored (much less mentioned by name), but the latter visibly takes its toll on Abby, who herself is growing worried at the ever-loudening sounds of construction that is transpiring in the loft above theirs (which doubles over as a convenient metaphor for Abby’s shifting psyche).
When David goes to Joshua’s private school for parent-teacher conferences, he can’t help but notice that all of the pets in the classroom cages are missing. The teacher explains that they all died about a week ago, likely due to some fungus in the pet’s food. Not too long after, David is called in from his weekly high-powered racquetball match because his beloved dog — whom Abby was never too fond of — is found dead in the kitchen. Seeing his motionless pet on the floor, David leans over and begins crying. Yet what’s most disturbing about the scene is how Joshua (who has developed quite a nasty habit of showing up unexpectedly at any given moment) stands back, observing David in mourning, and, after a few seconds, begins to mourn just like him, repeating David’s cries of “Why?” with the same exact inflection.
It is in moments like these where we the audience begin to question Joshua’s motivations, not least his actions. Never once is blame placed on Joshua for either the demise of the schoolroom animals or even the death of David’s dog. Instead, Ratliff merely implies the notion, never showing these horrific events take place: only the aftermath. Strange sounds at night heard over the baby monitor and a terrifying game of “hide and seek” that Joshua winds up playing with Abby are both unnerving, but since we never see any evil deeds actually happen onscreen, we’re left with a lingering sense of uncertainty about what is actually going on. As the stakes gradually grow higher, the Cairn family begins to fall apart, consumed by their own neuroses.
Though Ratliff’s thriller is bristling with tension, his treatment of his characters is what ultimately lessens its impact. Though Farmiga is able to show Abby’s breakdown with remarkable power, it’s about all that she shows us, as much of her pre-postpartum life gets left out of the picture. Joshua also gets a similar “damned-from-the-start” treatment, as during the homecoming of Hazel and Ned, it is brought up that Joshua has not been baptized, giving a easy opt-out for Joshua’s behavior while inviting all the Omen/Good Child references you want. Though spirituality winds up playing second fiddle to the psychological thriller aspects of the film, it still feels like a plotline handicap that ultimately holds the film back from its maximum impact.
For a small independent film, however, Ratliff winds up filling the DVD with a plethora of extras, ranging from largely-pointless deleted scenes to somewhat-insightful cast interviews. The movie features a brand new Dave Matthews song (“Fly”) that’s used well during the ending scenes, but its corresponding music video — featuring no actual clips of Matthews himself — winds up being nothing more than “Joshua in three minutes”.
The commentary track with Ratliff and co-writer David Gilbert, however, at least provides some insight both into the filmmaking process (how they were able to get a ground-level house to have a high-rise view without aide of a green screen is actually quite fascinating) as well as a few insights about the characters themselves. Ratliff mentions how Rockwell thought of this as “[his] Michael Douglas role”, and at one point describes the character of David as “a charm bulldozer [who’s] going to make it all right [just] by smiling.” The track still has a bit of an inclusive in-joke feel, however, with Ratliff and Gilbert cracking about every 10 minutes or so.
In one of the cast interview segments, young Jacob Kogan says that he expects audiences to be divided by the ambiguous ending, with some people taking Joshua’s side and others taking David’s. But even with its flaws, Joshua remains a terrifying experience, culling genuine fear from an unexpected place: your own, perfect child.