As a psychological thriller and light horror film, director George Ratliff’s feature debut, “Joshua,” works quite well. It is the tale of a precocious 9-year-old boy who may or may not be destroying his family’s sanity and threatening his baby sister’s life, and it plays on the fearful notion that some children aren’t actually sugar and spice; they’re smart and sinister.
Frights are something that clearly fascinate the filmmaker, who previously freaked a few people out with his 2001 documentary, “Hell House,” a depiction of an intense, church-sponsored haunted house filled with “sinners.”
Like that flick, though, “Joshua” is ultimately more than just scares and screams; it’s a vividly drawn cross-section of life that’s filled with nuance and honesty.
Mr. Ratliff and David Gilbert populate their co-written script with personalities that allow them to explore the inner workings of an upper-class Manhattan family and the issues that surface in their lives, including post-partum depression, intergenerational religious tugs of war and the career-family balance.
Even the film’s titular character, the aforementioned creepy youngster (played by Jacob Kogan), isn’t a mere source of suspense; he begs the question: What would you do if your child was really … “different”? Would you love him any less?
Outwardly, Mr. Ratliff’s fictional family, Brad and Abby Cairn (Sam Rockwell and Vera Farmiga), answer the latter in the negative, but when a cuddly new baby arrives, it’s clear who they’d rather lavish with attention. (“It’s nothing like last time,” the parents remark of the bundle of joy, hinting at Joshua’s troubled infancy and its devastating effects on his mother.)
Joshua, who’d rather play Beethoven sonatas than soccer and who wears suits instead of shorts, reacts to the familial changes by growing ever more distant and enigmatic. “You don’t have to love me,” he tells his good-hearted father, a man who’s determined to hold his clan together but isn’t always sure how.
Later, Joshua swaps his rehearsed piano routine for a sinister version of “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star” (the baby’s anthem), practices the art of mummification and happens to be around a lot of fatal “accidents.”
Meanwhile, the Ciarn baby lapses into relentless crying fits, Mom starts losing her grip, and all this distraction isn’t good for Dad’s high-stakes bond-trading job. Could Joshua be orchestrating all this chaos — and if so, why?
For the most part, the tension stays high throughout the film, owing both to the writing and acting, as well as Benoit Debie’s cinematography, which won him an award at this year’s Sundance Film Festival. (He subtly enhances the film’s mounting darkness by altering his choice of camera lens and angle, and also by using a special film-developing process that gradually increases the contrast.)
“Joshua’s” final twists might not be the home run that viewers would hope for to close this well-played game, but the behind-the-scenes team and their on-screen counterparts make this portrait of a “perfect” family’s demise worth the price of admission.
RATING: R (language, violent scenes, ominous overtones)