Thursday, February 7, 2008

Joshua (2007)

Joshua is a sophisticated, restrained and eerie horror movie that didn’t get the credit it deserved when it hit theaters. Instead of a typical “evil child” flick like The Omen or even Village of the Damned, Joshua shows us a somber and harrowing disintegration of a family at the hands of their young son, Joshua.

The Cairns are a wealthy Manhattan family who has just added newborn Lily to their lives. Mom Abby (Vera Farmiga) and dad Brad (Sam Rockwell) couldn’t be happier with their little bundle of joy, but their son Joshua (Jacob Kogan) is none too pleased at the lack of attention and affection he is getting. The happy family soon begins to go to pieces when Lily begins to constantly cry, driving Abby into a deep despair, which she had also faced when Joshua was a baby. Brad is preoccupied with work and isn’t home that often, though he does what he can to help. The exhausted Abby just can’t cope anymore, especially after being put on crutches after an accident. The peculiar Joshua certainly isn’t helping things, either. After a game of hide-and-go-seek that goes horribly wrong, Abby is hospitalized in a mental health facility. After Brad is forced to take care of Lily and Joshua, he becomes convinced that Joshua is behind the family’s problems. What he fails to realize, however, is the extent of Joshua’s manipulations and how far the child is willing to go.

I fully expected Joshua to be an unoriginal mish-mash of The Omen and Rosemary’s Baby, but I was pleasantly surprised when it avoided any satanic plot devices while still creating a stylish and tense film.

One word of warning, though, as horror fans might be a bit disappointed at the lack of any real “horror” in the film. Just when you think you are going to see just how evil Joshua really is and what he is capable of, the shot either cuts away or moves to the next scene. While I do think this was the appropriate case in the context of the film, I know this will leave many viewers disappointed. Still, the “scares” in Joshua aren’t aimed at making you jump out of your seat. Instead, the film aims to get under your skin, much like the film Bug, and scare you with the possibility of “what if…” What if your child was coldly calculating your own family’s demise? What if he had every angle covered and anticipated your every move? What if your own child framed you for child abuse and no one would believe the real story?

The story, written by David Gilbert and George Ratliff (who also directed), is calculated to move slowly, but under the surface tension continues to mount. Joshua’s true nature is revealed a tiny bit at a time, and so carefully and slowly that it’s easy to forget that this weird child is the instigator in the family’s problems. The story unfolds very naturally until the ending, where things really start to unravel.

The direction and cinematography only reflect the pace and atmosphere of the storyline. At first, everything is airy, bright, clean and cheery. As the story progresses and bad things begin to happen, the lighting dims, the family’s apartment becomes dingy and messy and things become cramped and claustrophobic. This doubles the effect of the tension that continues mounting throughout the film. Furthermore, the cacophonous sounds used throughout the film – discordant piano music, the constant crying of the baby, screaming, banging from the upstairs apartment – adds another layer of discomfort for the viewer.

Equally impressive is the acting in the film. Vera Farmiga is wondrous as the loving Abby who quickly loses her grip on her family and reality. Her transformation from put-together and happy wife to unkempt and desperate mother is shocking and heartbreaking. Sam Rockwell as detached hubby Brad isn’t quite so impressive, but still holds his own, though on a much more subtle scale. The real revelation, of course, is Jacob Kogan as Joshua. He plays his character so well that I actually sided with him at first over the family. His somber and matter-of-fact delivery, devoid of emotion, is extremely effective and eerie.

Joshua may not be a film for everyone, but I certainly enjoyed its slow-building story and the nefarious plans that Joshua had in store for his family. This underrated flick deserves to be seen, but is perhaps enjoyed more by those that enjoy intelligent horror films such as Bug.

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