Samuel Coleridge famously branded Iago's evil in Othello "motiveless malignity," but neither bard could have predicted the wholly unconvincing, slapdash motives of modern cinematic devils. In George Ratliff's austere psychological horror film Joshua, the nine-year-old title character's pangs of neglect at the birth of a sibling ostensibly fuel his slow-burning campaign to escape life with parents.
As Joshua (Jacob Kogan) prods his depressed mother Abby (Vera Farmiga) and hapless father Brad (Sam Rockwell), they cope badly with the escalating friction, made worse by work pressures and Joshua's judgmentally born-again grandma (Celia Weston). The film's upscale New York City milieu dovetails with a deadpan style that recalls Birth (a more complex film about a kid acting creepy) and Eyes Wide Shut (in the dissonant piano plunking strung through the film). While it doesn't help matters that the creepy-kid thing is so played out, neither does Kogan's depthless performance in the comically button-down leading role (try not to think of one of Bruce McCullough's blank-faced boys from vintage Kids in the Hall sketches).
A literally wiggy Farmiga throws herself into depicting the throes of nasty post-partum depression, which Joshua recognizes as a repeat from his own childhood (he confirms his suspicion by playing old camcorder tapes). The infant's crying terrorizes Abby, and with neither Mom getting the professional help she needs nor dad getting the sex he needs, nerves are frayed to breaking even before Joshua ramps up his self-conscious weirdness ("How do you feel about your weird son?") to pathologically threatening levels.
First seen bailing on soccer, Joshua prefers reading, piano, and—wait a tick—mummification. What could be curiosity increasingly turns to acting out and ultimately a Cold War with Dad (Rockwell—already convincing as a father trying his best—shifts into high comic gear in the final leg). Pets and family members would do well to look over their shoulders. Ratliff, known for his doc Hell House, keeps definitive moments off-screen until an ending that tips over one side of the fence, but by then he's long since tipped his hand.
Ratliff can't resist quoting other, better films (including a Battleship Potemkin tease on the steps of the Metropolitan Museum), and the use of Joshua's gay maternal uncle (Dallas Roberts) gives the enterprise unfulfilling ambiguity at best, distasteful implications at worst. As the film wears on, it becomes increasingly difficult to separate the dry humor from the supposed chills.
Consequently, Joshua drifts into camp, crafted by filmmakers who have seen The Bad Seed, The Good Son, Godsend, and multiple variations on The Omen too many times, and relish the idea of yanking our chains. Joshua understates its horror, and entirely eschews the supernatural, but comes off as silly nonetheless.