A Family That Frays Together

By Ann Hornaday
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, July 13, 2007

George Ratliff's "Joshua" is a horror movie uniquely shaped for our times, when the family circle is often likened to one of Dante's descending floors of Hell. Fraught with neurosis, psychological gamesmanship and consumerist myths of perfection, what was once the paragon of safety and stability epitomized by Ozzie and Harriet has now become the far more unsteady terrain of Ozzy and Sharon -- who are paragons of virtue compared with assorted Baldwins, Spearses, Hasselhoffs and, most recently, Ferrells.

It's as if an entire generation has decided that children are either the precious artifacts of their most cherished psychological projections, or a deceptively innocent and manipulative enemy in an ongoing war of narcissistic wills. Either way, as the British poet Philip Larkin famously, if profanely, observed: "They [mess] you up, your mum and dad."

And how. "Joshua" presents a disquieting portrait of domestic unease at its most terrifying, which is to say submerged under the veneer of bourgeois contentment. Sam Rockwell and Vera Farmiga play Brad and Abby Cairn, a prosperous Manhattan couple with a 9-year-old son, Joshua (Jacob Kogan, making an impressive screen debut), and, as the movie opens, a newborn daughter, Lily. When they bring the baby home, Joshua is clearly nonplused, preferring to bang out dissonant pieces on the piano with his Uncle Ned (Dallas Roberts) rather than coo over the swaddled bundle with the grandparents.

Structuring the film with ominous chapters announcing the baby's age ("19 days old," "31 days old"), Ratliff and his co-screenwriter, David Gilbert, immediately establish a mood of dread, steadily ratcheting it up as anxieties in the Cairn house pile precariously higher. Abby is awakened by something going bump in the night over the baby monitor; the family dog meets with an unexpected fate; and all the while, little Joshua maintains an oddly remote, formal demeanor. He's rarely seen without perfectly combed hair and a tie, and his chirping, too-cheerful appeals to "Mommy" and "Daddy" are weirdly stiff and over-rehearsed.

With such predecessors as "The Omen" and "Rosemary's Baby" so obviously in mind, it's easy to think that "Joshua" is about the creeping menace of its spookily precocious title character. But what soon becomes clear is that it's his parents who are dangerously out of step; it turns out that Abby suffered from postpartum depression after Joshua was born, and the usual mother-son bonding didn't take. For his part, Brad, a go-getting broker, seems to think that fatherhood is all high fives and "How ya doin', buddy?" He's a man who, as his family plunges deeper into crisis, responds by playing squash and turning up the iPod. Whether the Cairns are unwilling or incapable of connecting with their son, the effect is poisonous, with Joshua -- who is admittedly an unnervingly strange kid -- going to ever more desperate lengths to win their love.

Or is he up to something else? Ratliff, whose previous films were the superb documentaries "The Plutonium Circus" and "Hell House," does a deviously good job at keeping the audience off balance in the course of a movie that recalls Roman Polanski and Stephen King in its evocation of psychological horror, as well as Lionel Shriver's brilliant 2003 novel, "We Need to Talk About Kevin," in its dissection of parental attachment gone disastrously awry. A work of uncommon stillness, "Joshua" on its face might be about the perfect New York family, but a closer look reveals a household steeped in rage and denial, its joylessness mirrored in the huge apartment's drab wallpaper and monotone artwork. (The only music to speak of, aside from Joshua's atonal improvisations, are the snatches of pop music that escape from Brad's ear-buds.)

Filmgoers who relate to Joshua's isolation may find themselves waiting breathlessly for a sign of physical affection between him and his parents; those gestures finally come, but too late for a family mired in toxic habits of the heart. Rockwell, Farmiga and especially Kogan skillfully navigate their characters' ambiguities, each of them claiming at least a moment of sympathy before turning on one of "Joshua's" myriad emotional dimes. Even the film's Eisenstein-inspired climactic scene, featuring a baby stroller perched unsteadily on the top of a museum staircase, seems designed to instill doubt about who's the victim and who's the victimizer. Until "Joshua's" quiet whopper of an ending, we could either be watching a particularly edgy drama about a gifted child or "The Bad Seed" circa 2007.

Mercilessly puncturing the ideal of the nuclear family while simultaneously mourning its loss, Ratliff seems comfortable with a degree of ambiguity that gives most people an acute case of the heebie-jeebies. Harrowing, controlled and diabolically self-assured, "Joshua" leaves the audience teetering on its own emotional precipice, wondering just where pathos ends and pathology begins.

Joshua (106 minutes, at area theaters) is rated R for profanity and disturbing behavior.

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