Joshua is a film about a child who coldly, methodically orchestrates the complete and utter collapse of his family in an attempt to reanimate it again in his own image.
Make no mistake about it, Joshua is a horror film of the most chilling kind.
Brad and Abby Cairn (Sam Rockwell and Vera Farmiga) appear to be the perfect Manhattan couple in the perfect Upper East Side apartment whose perfect lives begin to splinter with the arrival of their second child, Lily.
“Do you ever feel weird about me, your weird son?” 9-year-old Joshua (Jacob Kogan) asks his dad one night shortly after his mother and newborn sister have returned from the hospital. “You don’t have to love me, you know.” Joshua’s question seems innocent enough. An only child for so many years, it is only natural that he be jealous and somewhat thrown off by the sudden attention lavished on his new sister.
Weird, however, doesn’t begin to describe him. A child prodigy whose schoolteacher suggests moving him ahead a few years, Joshua is a piano virtuoso who is always impeccably attired and maddeningly polite to the point of coming off as an emotionally detached automaton. His best friend is his uncle Ned (Dallas Roberts), a gay actor for whom Joshua feels a closer affinity than his own parents.
The film marks the passage of time by the noting the baby’s age in days. Each new day seems worse than the last. Abby, whom we learn has a history of mental instability, is driven to despair by the baby’s unrelenting, unremitting crying. While she unravels before our eyes, Joshua continues to creep us out, always appearing out of nowhere, disemboweling his stuffed animals and morbidly studying mummification. Abby’s despair leads to post-partum depression which itself spins off into something dreadfully resembling full on madness. For his part, the longsuffering Brad seems almost unflappable. The more his wife careens into despondency, the warmer and more attentive he becomes.
Meanwhile, chilling incidents continue to orbit young Joshua. The family dog dies under mysterious circumstances as do the hamsters in Joshua’s classroom, and Brad’s mother plunges to her death at the bottom of a staircase where moments before she had been holding her grandson’s hand. Too late Brad begins to piece together what a raving Abby seemed to have reckoned much earlier — their son is not what he seems. If they accept Joshua is brilliant, does it not also follow that he could be brilliantly evil? Is it unthinkable to imagine him applying his voracious, prodigious intelligence for nefarious ends?
Suddenly paranoid and convinced Joshua is out to kill his little sister, Brad takes to bolting his bedroom door from the inside and padlocking all the kitchen cabinets to prevent tampering. The child psychiatrist he employs to examine his son, only comes away convinced Joshua is the victim of child abuse. The once jovial and unflappable Brad begins to fray at the seams just like his wife before him.
One by one, Joshua wears the adults around him down until they crack and eventually shatter under the crushing pressure. So darkly diabolical is Joshua’s manipulation of people and events that when Brad finally implodes and lashes out on his son with appalling violence, we actually want to cheer him on. What’s sincerely shocking about Joshua is how effectively it makes us fear and loathe a small child.
In the Bible, Joshua is the Hebrew leader in command of the children of Israel when they march around the titanic walls of Jericho and bring them crashing to the ground. It is no accident that the Joshua of this film possesses the same name. Throughout the film, allusions to the fragility of family and home are made. Having at one point in the film built a tall structure out of blocks of wood, Joshua removes one innocuous piece near the base and with it, brings down the entire construction. His intercession in the annihilation of his own home and family is far more than metaphorical. In the process, Joshua becomes a sly, 21st century commentary on the soul-numbing effects of feminine domesticity, child rearing and the collapses of the family unit.
Comparisons to The Omen are unavoidable, but unfair. Joshua is a deliciously slow, methodically paced, brilliant piece of cinematic suspense crafted in the image and soul of Alfred Hitchcock. The casting is impeccable. Known primarily as a comedy actor, Sam Rockwell (Galaxy Quest, The Green Mile) gives a dramatic performance as riveting as he is customarily hilarious. The hauntingly beautiful Vera Farmiga, introduced to the world last year in The Departed, proves she is going nowhere but up. And Jacob Kogan, in his first film, is spellbinding.
Joshua turns an otherwise adorable picture of a handsome young boy pushing his little sister’s stroller into an image of stark terror and petrifying horror. The film is the ultimate birth control. If you plan on one day having kids, don’t see this film. If you already have children, you will never look at them the same way again.