"Watch this movie on a night when you don’t think you need birth control."
Director Gregory Ratliff's 'Joshua' plays like three movies grafted into one: an awkward and hackneyed thriller, an intriguing domestic drama and a subtly effective black comedy. Overall, 'Joshua' gives viewers some worthwhile moments and an uncomfortable feeling that having children is a bad idea.The nine-year-old title character (Jacob Kogan) hasn't adjusted well to the birth of his younger sister. Come to think of it, the rest of his family hasn't done well either. The mother Abby (Vera Farmiga, "The Departed") has become clingy with her new offspring and has become intensely morose because the little bundle of joy cries incessantly.
Her husband Brad (Sam Rockwell) has an enviable position as a financial advisor, but the long hours may be preventing him from noticing bizarre behavior from his son.
Joshua vomits in front of adults when his little sister receives more attention and faints during piano recital. He also starts disturbing his dad by quitting soccer and obsessing over death.
To Ratliff's credit, he and co-screenwriter David Gilbert gradually let viewers determine that Joshua is the sort of son that makes parents wish they had never met, much less fell in love.
Because Joshua’s actions at first are merely weird, viewers wonder if there might be other issues in play. For example, focusing only on Abby’s post-partum anxiety and malaise could make for an interesting movie. The redoubtable Farmiga makes what could have been a one-note character fascinating, and the movie loses much of its energy whenever she’s gone from the screen.
When it goes for laughs, “Joshua” is at its most effective. Rockwell, who usually plays flamboyant eccentrics like the psycho killer he portrayed in “The Green Mile,” can do normal, but there’s an eerie look in his eyes that makes you wait with baited breath for him to lose control.
Kogan doesn’t project an overt menace so when he acts up, it’s more quietly eerie instead of manically evil. He seems so innocent when he starts reenacting Egyptian burial rites on his toys.
Ratliff and Gilbert try not to spoon feed their attempts at scaring viewers. Most of the evil deeds happen off-screen. But like the teenagers in the Jason movies, the adults in Joshua practically beg for grim fates. Abby and Brad may live in Manhattan, but they have no problem letting a nine-year-old walk the family dog outside their apartment building by himself. Even parents here in Kansas City might find that potentially dangerous.
If you’ve been overdosing on Stan Brakhage experimental films and miss the classic thriller clichés, they’re back for you to enjoy. You’ll get to see the refrigerator door that closes to reveal a stalker and other devices that Alfred Hitchcock and other creative filmmakers avoided.There’s a fascinating movie waiting to emerge during “Joshua.” It’s too bad that Ratliff couldn’t decide which one he wanted to make.