When Joshua received its lamentably minor theatrical release last summer, the artwork for the film showed a giant framed portrait of the film’s 9-year-old bad seed with his anchorman hair and eerily innocuous expression hanging before the actual Joshua, looking diminutive against it, his back facing us. I found the image intriguing and looked forward to the film. I seemed to have been in the minority.
The revised artwork gracing the cover of Maple’s Joshua DVD, bathed in deep red and featuring the shadowy figure of Joshua’s mother looking vulnerable below a looming, more obviously sinister Joshua, is far less ambiguous in conveying the film’s place within the horror genre. I’m sympathetic to the marketing division –this cover will probably generate more pick-ups– yet this sort of Omen fan baiting hardly represents the true merits of this terrifically unnerving, subtle and complex chiller, which works not through violent imagery or apocalyptic prophesies but through banal family dynamics.
Directed by George Ratliff and written by Ratliff and David Gilbert, Joshua opens with the birth of the second child of Brad (Sam Rockwell) and Abby (Vera Farmiga), parents to the titular piano prodigy (Jacob Kogan). One suspects that, like most kids, the emotionally repressed Joshua feels threatened by the bald, wiggling, wailing intruder. One also suspects that Brad and Abby, perfectly likable yuppies eager to uphold an air of normalcy, are basically content to be distracted from their stuffy, introspective first-born, who occupies himself playing Bartók and reading about Egyptian funerary practices.
What gradually develops through the tightly constructed script, bold editing, creeping camerawork and superlative ensemble cast, is a series of blows to the family order, fed by forces every parent understands: postpartum depression, issues of identity linked to birth order, occupational instability, meddlesome grandparents, hormonal havoc, parental duty sharing. Strategically exploiting these forces is Joshua, whose increasingly apparent malice is, right up into the third act, consistently undercut by his sympathetic position as the neglected weird one vying for attention and favour. Whether the kid’s an evil little bastard or his elders had it coming should make for interesting debate afterwards.
In the disc’s supplementary interviews Ratliff expresses frustration over comparisons between Joshua and Rosemary’s Baby. The crucial difference between the films, Ratliff explains, is that Polanski’s classic depends on supernatural elements to invoke chills. These protests are both inaccurate and unneeded. Joshua stands on its own just fine, and aligning it with Rosemary’s Baby only enhances the viewer’s pleasure is tracing its rich lineage. However you read the Satanic elements in Rosemary’s Baby, its deeper resonance comes from precisely the same place as Joshua’s: recognizable bourgeois familial anxieties enveloped by the hothouse of Manhattan’s upper east side. And like Rosemary’s Baby, Joshua has the distinction of being a movie that no new parents want to see –but they probably should.