If you had to describe the indie film Joshua in one simple phrase, you could definitely call it a "killer kid" flick. So while it certainly shares some traits with films like The Bad Seed, The Omen, and The Good Son, it's much more of a slow-burn dramatic piece than any sort of gore-fest or occult story. That said, it's still an effectively-crafted and impressively intense little chiller, and (best of all) one that leaves you with a few good arguments to toss around once the credits roll. (I found the "wrap-up" to be oddly satisfying, but it's sure to cause a lot of fevered discussion on dozens of movie-geek message boards.) If the film suffers (once in a while) from some spotty pacing -- and a generally intrusive musical score -- there's still more then enough on tap that's worth recommending.
The always-strong Sam Rockwell plays a wealthy young stock trader who shares a swanky apartment with his brittle wife, his newborn daughter Lilly, and a quietly creepy 9-year-old son called (you guessed it) Joshua. From just that one section of plot synopsis, the astute horror fans can probably guess where Joshua is headed ... and they're right. To a point. It's not spoiling anything to say that little Joshua has some plans (and some problems) that his parents know nothing about. Suffice to say that Lilly's arrival is not seen as "good news" by every member of the Cairn household.
Although deliberately paced and staunchly opposed to employing any of the conventional 'horror' trappings, Joshua does have a few crafty tricks up its sleeve. Director George Ratliff tightens the noose ever-so-slowly, and is smart enough to toss a few misdirections into the mix ... just to keep us guessing. The question of whether Joshua is just plain old "bad," or if there's something more "mysterious" going on, keeps the flick moving through the (few but noticeable) dry spots.
The movie has sort of an austere and well-scrubbed "arthouse" feel to it, which just makes the black heart at the core of the piece feel all the more malignant. It's a thought-provoking and sedate horror movie, but Joshua is most definitely a horror movie. And yet ... every once in a while, we get a small splash of dark humor -- or a moment in which we're meant to simply HATE HATE HATE the titular bugger. But really, that's all just a matter of a smart screenplay and an astute director. Save for a few small moments here and there, Ratliff had me dancing like a puppet on a string.
As the parents, Sam Rockwell and Vera Farmiga deliver their predictably excellent performances. Farmiga is particularly tense and fragile; you begin to dread her character's appearance after a while! Rockwell does most of the heavy lifting, and clearly he's more than up for the job. Although asked to play a priviliged member of the upper crust, Rockwell is still able to bring a certain warmth and "everyman" charm to his low-key performance. As the title brat, Jacob Kogan is suitably disconcerting throughout, and the background is peppered with some very strong back-up work from Celia Weston, Dallas Roberts, and Michael McKean.
So if you're looking for a mini-slasher like the one found in the final reels of Pet Sematary, I recommend you look elsewhere -- but if you're game for a 95-minute mind-screw ... I'd say Joshua is most definitely worthy of a rental. Plus, Fox has delivered the festival flick in a very handsome DVD package, and obviously that's a good thing. The film is presented in a very fine anamorphic widescreen (1.85:1) transfer, with audio delivered in 5.1 DTS or Dolby Surround. Extras-wise, we've got a pretty solid bunch: Writer/director George Ratliff and co-writer David Gilbert offer a very insightful audio commentary that covers quite a few of the questions you might have once the movie's over; also included are several video interviews with Ratliff, Rockwell, Farmiga, Kogan, producer Johnathan Dorfman, and production designer Roshelle Berliner; a series on internet ad campaign clips; young Jacob Kogan's original audition video; a video for Dave Matthews' "Fly," a small handful of deleted scenes, and the original Joshua theatrical trailer.
OK, so it's just a new coat of paint on a fairly old story, but hell, if a story works, why not try to tell it a new way?