Perhaps the scariest thing about Joshua was the feeling I got at the end that I had just sat through some kind of weird gay panic movie. As the movie came to its conclusion I found myself more than a little gobsmacked by what writer and director George Ratliff had ended his movie with: the evil little boy in this movie’s basic problem is that he’s a homo.
I don’t know if that’s what Ratliff intended to get across. Some of his messages were obvious, like digs against evangelical Christianity (the guy directed the doc Hell House, making his stance on these matters pretty clear, although the movie makes it super duper clear on its own), but the gay stuff seemed to build over the course of the movie. It began with Joshua having some gay signifiers: he’s fastidiously neat to the point where his dad mentions that his hair seems to be made of plastic; he’s musically gifted at the piano, not the most manly of instruments (see Liberace, Elton John), and he seems drawn to classical music and showtunes. These are small things, which taken alone, could just mean that the little kid is quite unlike any other little kid out there, that he’s some kind of outsider – fair enough. But when taken with the final scene of the film, it becomes pretty obvious that the sociopathic condition Joshua has is homosexuality. More on that later, after a spoiler warning.
When the movie opens Sam Rockwell and Vera Farmiga, a well-to-do couple living in New York’s Upper West Side, have just brought home their second baby. Farmiga experienced some harrowing post-partum depression with their first kid, Joshua, who is now nine, but everything seems okay this time. At least until the new baby starts crying day and night and wearing Farmiga down. She slowly starts falling to pieces, and the family begins crumbling around her. Eventually Rockwell realizes this is all the doing of Joshua, and has to figure out how to deal with his devilish son.
The answer is anti-climactically. While I appreciate that Joshua keeps away from a supernatural explanation for the kid’s bad behavior and that it tries to keep it real – ie, you won’t see Rockwell navigating an insanely death-trapped apartment or something – the movie builds suspense and tension for the first hour and then just deflates it all. The finale between Rockwell and the kid would have been fine in a half hour long TV show, but at the end of a movie we want something a little more.
Sam Rockwell, though, delivers. While his character arc is a little unbelievable – he goes from 0 to ‘My son is an evil little bastard’ in a couple of minutes – this is Rockwell’s best performance. He’s left behind all his usual schtick and tics and just creates an incredibly likable character from the ground up. Without that anchoring performance, Joshua would have floundered much, much earlier (as it is, it flounders when Joshua kills someone by tossing them down some stairs and you just hear the silly thumping noises offscreen. That’s the exact point where the movie shits its own pants).
Vera Farmiga is, of course, also terrific. She’s been on fire for the last couple of years, turning in one great performance after another, each different from the last. Sadly she just gets to play tortured here; women don’t do well in Ratliff’s film, and she does worst of all as Joshua slowly drives her insane. And it’s not the kind of insane where you feel bad for her, it’s the kid of insane where she gets on your nerves, especially because she’s being so mean to the almost saintly Sam Rockwell.
Joshua is trying to be The Omen in Rosemary’s Baby’s Zipcode without all the devil trappings, although Ratliff and co-writer David Gilbert throw some half-hearted attempts at misdirection our way. Joshua is fascinated by ancient Egypt and the god Set – could he be reincarnated? Is he a devil child? Is he a super-intelligent sociopath? Young Jacob Kogan is amazing as Joshua (he apparently learned to play the piano just for the film), and he delivers lots of intense creepiness. In fact, this movie is excellently cast almost from top to bottom, and all of the actors are giving top of the line performances. So what’s the problem with it? The whole thing feels half-baked, like Ratliff just couldn’t figure out a way to finish his own movie. There’s no less satisfying experience in cinema than a movie that never pays off in any way, shape or form.
Which brings us to the last scene. Spoilers below.
Having sent his mother to an insane asylum and his father to jail (a most half-assed evil plan, especially after killing his grandmother for no good reason), Joshua is left in the care of his mother’s brother, a gay Broadway guy (I’m not clear on what his job is. I think he writes showtunes). Seated next to each other at the piano, Joshua sings a love song to his gay uncle, singing how much alike they are and how they were meant to be together. The moment is disturbing in ways that Ratliff may not have intended; since Joshua never showed any affection for his family (he tells his dad it’s OK to not love him, in fact), this massive display of love can’t be seen as Joshua just moving on to his next victim – it comes across as legit. So what is it that Joshua and his impeccably dressed uncle have in common, beyond a love of the piano? I can’t help but think that Joshua got his whole family out of the way so that he could live – possibly in what he hopes will be a sexual relationship – in a gay household. The whole thing has a Talented Mr. Ripley Jr vibe, but at least Ripley was a) human, and b) not engaged in evil due solely to his gayness. Joshua equates the kid’s evil almost directly with his desire to live with and love for his uncle. I honestly look forward to a director’s commentary on the Joshua DVD because I just have to know what the fuck Ratliff was even thinking with this movie.
Worth seeing on television for the performances, Joshua is a movie that goes nowhere except into a weird bit of psychosexual finger-pointing. Ratliff’s narrative debut looks good and has tension and atmosphere at times, but eventually has no finish.