In the summer of 1993, Judge Erich Asperschlager worked at a Creepy Kids Camp. He lasted 35 minutes.
"You know what the best part is, daddy?"
Joshua is a small movie with big ambitions. Director George Ratcliff and his co-writer David Gilbert set out to make a "smart" genre film. Unfortunately, trying to split the difference between Hollywood and low-budget indie production doesn't quite work for this film, which shares some similarities to thrillers like Rosemary's Baby and The Omen. Where those movies eventually answered their biggest mysteries, Joshua is far more vague, leaving the audience to wonder about causes and motivations well past the closing credits.
I'm sure Joshua makes all the sense in the world to its filmmakers. Perhaps Ratcliff and Gilbert thought providing clear answers would limit them artistically. Maybe I just missed something. Either way, without a clear narrative, the film never fully gels. Despite a strong cast and a story that deals effectively with real-life issues like postpartum depression, Joshua ultimately falls short.
Facts of the Case
The birth of a child should be a joyous occasion, but for upper-middle-class New Yorkers Brad and Abby Cairn, their new baby—a girl named Lily—marks the beginning of trouble at home. Abby (Vera Farmiga, The Departed) comes home from the hospital, worried that she might slip into the same postpartum depression she suffered from after the birth of their first child, a now 9-year-old boy named Joshua (Jacob Kogan). Not long after his sister's arrival, Joshua begins exhibiting strange behavior, from unprovoked vomiting to collapsing during a piano performance during his private school's talent show.
A few weeks later, Brad and Abby wake to the sound of Lily crying. They try to comfort her, but she won't stop. As the crying continues, day in and day out, Abby is driven closer to the edge of sanity. As Brad (Sam Rockwell, Matchstick Men) deals with increasing stresses at home and at work, he begins to realize that the brilliant Joshua might be involved in what's going on in ways he could never have imagined.
Joshua is a troubling film, but not for the reasons the writers intended. It's a film that eschews genre conventions, but doesn't come up with anything better to take their place. It has far too few payoffs to be good horror, is too confusing to get under your skin, and its twists are often either too obvious, or too contrived to have much impact.
I respect the filmmakers' wanting to push the thriller genre, by melding horror with indie film sensibilities. The problem is that without any real explanations for what happens in the film, it's hard to care about the characters. Joshua, at the center of everything that happens, is the biggest enigma of all. Why, for instance, does Joshua's plan to destroy his parents coincide with the birth of his sister? Is he jealous? Does he doubt his parents' love? Does he think they're unfit to raise another child? Is he really—as he tells his father when he's discovered giving away all his toys—just trying to "start over?" Perhaps he's just that devoid of feeling; but if that's the case, why hasn't he tried this sort of thing before? There are suggestions of all the above motivations, though none are entirely convincing within the context of the story—not even the explanation hinted at in the film's final scene. Without clear motivation, Joshua's actions seem not only cruel for cruelty's sake, but to undermine his portrayal as cerebral and calculating.
Perhaps part of the film's problem is that the characters aren't strong enough to carry a story that relies so little on exposition. Ambiguity can be a compelling in a movie, but it requires the story be populated with interesting people. We get hints at Jacob Kogan's acting talent—he plays "cooly detached" with creepy maturity—but he acts so despicably he's impossible to root for. His mother Abby, meanwhile, falls into her crazed depression so early that she's pretty much a one-note character for most of the film. Rockwell, as Brad, does the best job of being the film's emotional center, but he ends up being as lousy a parent as Abby; by the time the story reaches its climax, he's as unsympathetic as Joshua.
The supporting characters, meanwhile, either get too little screen time to have an impact—Michael McKean (For Your Consideration) as Brad's boss—or are painted far too broadly. For example, Brad's overly religious mother (Celia Weston, Junebug) is a clichéd "crazy Christian;" and Dallas Roberts (3:10 to Yuma), who turns in one of the film's best performances as Abby's gay brother Ned, spends most of his time sipping martinis and talking showtunes.
The real shame is that the cast is so much more impressive than the film. Most all of the actors have given better performances, playing better roles in better films.
For a relatively small release, this DVD has a decent slate of extras. Though Ratcliff and Gilbert spend a good amount of the audio commentary praising the actors, cinematographer, and composer, they also do a good job of explaining what they were trying to accomplish. Whatever their success in implementing it, they clearly had a vision for the film. There are excerpts of interviews with Kogan, Rockwell, Farmiga, Ratcliff, producer Johnathan Dorfman, and production designer Roshelle Berliner, who heap lots of praise on each other—though some interesting story and production nuggets pop up.
There's also footage of Jacob Kogan's audition; a behind-the-scenes internet advertising campaign; some interesting (short) deleted scenes; and the full Dave Matthews' performance of "Fly"—the song that plays over the closing credits—as a "music video" (footage from the film).
The Rebuttal Witnesses
I don't mean to be too harsh on Joshua. Though it falls flat in a few key areas, it's still better than most of the tired thrillers pumped out by Hollywood. It manages to be atmospheric, even genuinely creepy at times. For those willing to trade a fully realized story for independent film sensibilities, it might be worth a look. Just because the characters and story didn't work for me doesn't mean they won't for other people. It was nominated for a Grand Jury Prize at Sundance Film Festival.
One area in which Joshua excels is its audio-visual design: Cinematographer Benoît Debie's decision to use handheld cameras, and subtly shift the style and tone as the film progresses, gives the film a naturalism that plays well off the more disturbing moments. Nico Muhly's score—composed primarily on piano (Joshua's instrument of choice)—is a suitably creepy mix of tonal and atonal. Compared to the throwaway look and sound of most thrillers, Joshua's design is clearly as important to its filmmakers as character and story.
If Joshua didn't rely so heavily on two-dimensional characters to carry its purposely vague plot, it might have been a fresh take on a creaky genre. Instead, it captures neither the under-your-skin creepiness of the best thrillers, nor the strong character development of the best indie films. Despite a haunting score, effective visuals, and some interesting ideas (what would it be like if the person you feared most were your own child?), the wandering narrative ultimately kills what is otherwise a valiant effort.
Though this court hates to pass judgment on children, in Joshua's case I'm willing to make an exception. Guilty.
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Scales of Justice
• Commentary by Writer/Director George Ratliff and Writer David Gilbert
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