Letter From The Editor - Issue 69 - June 2019

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At The Picture Show
August 2007

Touch of evil

The Satan-child genre gets a new entry in 'Joshua'

Fox Searchlight Pictures
Director: George Ratliff
Screenplay: David Gilbert and George Ratliff
Starring: Sam Rockwell, Vera Farmiga, Celia Weston, Dallas Roberts, Michael McKean and Jacob Kogan
Rated R / 1 hour, 45 minutes
Now playing in limited release
(out of four)

Little kids are scary. They're sinister, evil little devil spawns, and they want to kill you - and any other children you might be thinking about having.

OK, maybe not all of them. In fact, only a select few would fit this description. Linda Blair, Harvey Stephens, Macaulay Culkin, Patty McCormack...or as they're otherwise known, Regan from The Exorcist, Damien from The Omen, Henry from The Good Son, Rhoda from The Bad Seed. Evil little children are all over the place. Another one comes creeping in Joshua and - you're never going to believe this - the child in question is named Joshua (played by newcomer Jacob Kogan).

He's the perfect little son to a likeable couple played by Sam Rockwell and Vera Farmiga. He's been their only child for a while - and for a reason. He was such a terror during his early years that his mother, Abby, could hardly handle it. We get ominous hints of just how horrible baby Joshua was.

But he's grown up now - a little bit, at least. He's 9 years old now. He plays the piano. He's remarkably well-spoken for his age. He's a normal, well-adjusted kid. Not very likeable, maybe...in fact, in one of the film's more effective scenes, he even asks his dad whether or not he likes him, insisting that "you don't have to." But anyway, he seems to be easy enough to handle - the Terrible Twos are long behind him.

Until, that is, the new baby arrives. Joshua doesn't like the new baby. He makes this quite clear when he...uh...keeps trying to kill her.

OK, OK, it's not quite that obvious. There are some laugh-worthy moments that are definitely not meant to be funny. But to be fair to writer/director George Ratliff, he tries to build the tension of his story from a less obvious angle. Joshua deliberately sabotages his own piano recital. He distances himself from the family. Against his mother's will, he suddenly becomes close to her ultra-right-wing Christian cliche grandmother (Celia Weston). To put it simply, he expresses his evil in a much more passive-aggressive style. After all, he doesn't want to give himself away.

But the progression of the story leaves a lot to be desired. Logical holes jump out at us. The dramatic setpieces offer nothing in the way of originality or suspense. And then there's the kid...

When Joshua screened at Sundance earlier this year, the cast and crew raved about Jacob Kogan, and how much of a "natural" he was. That's a natural thing to say, of course - everyone compliments everyone at festival premieres and press junkets. But unfortunately, Kogan simply isn't very impressive. The Creepy Child has been done to death in the movies, and this performance just doesn't hold much water.

Playing alongside Kogan are Rockwell and Farmiga, two excellent leads who form a feasible couple before the script reveals its unintelligence. Farmiga is especially convincing as an anguished mother suffering from postpartum depression. Her condition is supposed to play into some of the uncertainty regarding Joshua's true nature. Is he really evil, or is it just her hormones working up? But Ratliff never convincingly pulls off that angle. The real shame is that Farmiga gives a great performance - it just belongs in a better movie.

Joshua isn't all that impressive to begin with, but really loses track when it pumps up the drama. There's a "hide and seek" scene that makes absolutely no logical sense. And the film's climactic scenes that will make you angry for their sheer mindless contrivance.

Psychological horror is a difficult thing to pull off. Ratliff at least had some firm ground to stand on when making Joshua, since his plot format is such a familiar one. But he still doesn't quite manage to pull it off. By the end of the movie, the kid isn't scary. He isn't an ominous presence that makes our neck hairs stand up. He's just annoying. He needs to be given a time-out - and a good spanking. That'll teach him.

Read more by Chris Bellamy

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