A dark psychological drama involving the increasingly evil behavior of a 9-year-old boy, George Ratliff’s Joshua brings to mind that supremely cheesy Frodo Baggins relic, The Good Son, which featured a Home-Alone-milking Macauley Culkin throwing mannequins off bridges and shooting cats with nail guns. But where The Good Son was dipped and fried in sticky, overwrought melodrama, the corniness of some scenes provoking laughter in the theater, Joshua is an eerie, well-acted exploration of one’s family’s decent into madness.
Joshua (Jacob Kogan) is the 9-year-old son of the Cairns, who live in a spacious apartment in Brooklyn. Brad is a funds trader working in the city, and as the film begins, his wife Abby has just given birth to a baby girl. They’re overjoyed at this new arrival, but Joshua looks on with skepticism, and he shows his displeasure by suddenly appearing behind people when they turn around, a recurring motif.
Abby endured extreme post-partum depression following the birth of Joshua, and as the weeks pass following the new baby’s birth, she begins to once again sink into an emotional abyss. The baby won’t stop crying and Joshua begins behaving strangely, purposely screwing up a piano recital and disemboweling a stuffed panda with a pair of scissors. Abby begins hearing mysterious noises coming from the gutted penthouse apartment upstairs and Brad, a patient and affable husband, attempts to medicate her as a means of coping with the depression. But as the baby continues to cry and Abby’s depression worsens, Joshua begins a malicious psychological game that threatens to destroy the family.
Joshua isn’t a flat out horror film any more than The Bad Seed or The Good Son, but it is a tense, brooding depiction of evil intent, and several scenes were admirably intense. Sam Rockwell (Confessions of a Dangerous Mind) carries the film easily as Brad, depicting a genial father whose heart is in the right place, even if his family is being destroyed right in front of him. Vera Farmiga (The Departed) is just fine as the emotionally strung out Abby, and she gets in a few strong scenes, but Rockwell’s charisma was palpable throughout the entire film.
Joshua’s tension ratchets slowly, one click at a time, as new tragedies occur and new discoveries are made. The boy’s motives are unclear, but his intentions are not innocent, that much is certain, and director Ratliff keeps interest piqued by refusing to answer any easy questions. It’s best not to divulge too much of the plot, since the escalation of events make up a good portion of the suspense. Recommended for those who like baleful drama mixed with their subtle horror, Joshua is a well-honed chunk of cinematic blackness, ultimately thought-provoking and impressively bleak.