Diabolical child

Joshua ****1/2 
Jacob Kogan, Sam Rockwell, Vera Farmiga, Dallas Roberts 
Directed by George Ratliff 
Rated R 
Opens Friday

Mike D'Angelo

The first discordant note in Joshua, George Ratliff’s spectacularly creepy tale of an affluent New York family in crisis, is neither sinister nor supernatural, and yet for some reason it puts you immediately on edge.

Hotshot hedge-fund analyst Brad Cairn (Sam Rockwell), cheering on his 9-year-old son Joshua (Jacob Kogan) at a Central Park soccer game, gets a phone call from his wife, Abby (Vera Farmiga), who’s just gone into labor. Yanking Josh from the field, he hurries out of the park and quickly spots an available cab pulling up on the opposite side of the street.

After dashing across, however, he turns to discover that Joshua hasn’t followed him. His son is just standing there on the opposite curb in his uniform and cleats, looking vaguely apprehensive. “C’mon, buddy, let’s go,” Brad yells, waving him over. Joshua dutifully takes one tentative step into the street, only to immediately step back when a car whizzes past. Ratliff cuts to black (and the film’s title) on the boy’s placid, I-think-I’m-fine-over-here gaze.

For obvious reasons, Fox Searchlight, which acquired Joshua at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, has chosen to sell the film as your basic bad-seed thriller, inviting audiences to watch a diabolical Damien clone skulk around a cavernous Manhattan apartment seeking creative ways to destroy his relatives. In truth, the movie does eventually arrive at that point, to its very slight detriment. But walk in unaware, as I did at Sundance, and you could easily mistake Joshua for a remarkably sharp, disquietingly offbeat family drama, exploring the fissures created by the introduction of a new baby to the Cairn household. Abby, who’d experienced severe postpartum depression nine years earlier, sees her moods start to violently swing once again. Brad’s born-again parents demand to know whether little Lily, unlike Joshua, will be baptized—oblivious to the feelings of their mother, a self-described (and decidedly secular) “big fat Jew.” And Josh, like most kids who suddenly find that they’re no longer the center of attention, begins acting out in his own nerd-prodigy fashion, playing “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star” in lieu of Bartok at a school recital and giving his toys away to the poor.

By the time Joshua develops a morbid fascination with Egyptian mummification, we’re unmistakably in horror territory, awaiting the inevitable body count. Even so, Ratliff jangles our nerves not with gore or with cheap “boo” effects (though Josh does possess the standard genre ability to abruptly appear from behind refrigerator doors and so forth), but via subtly dissonant editing and unsettlingly inexplicable behavior.

Scenes frequently end half a beat before you expect them to, while you’re still attempting to process something peculiar you’ve just glimpsed or barely heard. And while any old fright flick of this sort might mysteriously kill off the family dog, what chills you here is the way that Joshua, after observing his father’s outpouring of grief over the mutt’s forlorn remains, proceeds to mimic Dad’s every word and gesture in an obscene simulacrum of mourning. That it’s not clear whether Josh intends this performance as cruel mockery, or whether he’s simply incapable of expressing emotions he hasn’t learned by rote, only makes you empathize with Brad’s look of incredulous disgust.

Sadly, Sam Rockwell won’t even be mentioned when critics and pundits start floating possible Best Actor candidates at year’s end, though I can’t imagine anybody equaling his flash-free portrait of a genial doofus determined to love a child who, as Brad admits at a parent-teacher conference, is exactly the kind of kid he himself would have bullied and tormented in school.

“You’re my boy, I’ll always love you,” Dad assures an insecure Joshua early on; by the film’s black-comic final act, however, father and son regularly sit on opposite sides of the kitchen or family room, locked in mutually distrustful stare-downs. Joshua exploits a rarely acknowledged fear: that your child will turn out to resemble you in no way whatsoever. Which makes its truly bizarre denouement—a piano duet between the newly liberated Joshua and his favorite uncle, Ned (Dallas Roberts), a rather swishy musical-theater composer—that much more daring. Most movies wouldn’t even acknowledge a straight couple’s unspoken, perhaps guilty wish for their offspring, much less detonate it.

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