Sam Rockwell stars in JOSHUA, directed by George Ratliff for Fox Searchlight Pictures.

Joshua (2007, George Ratliff)

Joshua is a particularly disquieting experience. I’m trying to think of a comparable experience and the closest I’m coming to is Antarctic Journal, I think. That film may or may not have had a similar counting up toward some unknown resolution (Joshua does it with the newborn sister’s age in days). The premise of the film, first-born goes evil when a new sibling arrives, isn’t particularly inventive. Even the script’s plotting is fairly standard. The film pulls itself around at the end, but more through the excellent production elements than any scripted factor. Joshua is a 1970s New York–these films are the great marginal Hollywood New York films, a genre long gone–starring Sam Rockwell.

Rockwell’s performance makes the film. Not to discredit the terrifying kid (Jacob Kogan in this film could put Trojan out of business) or Vera Farmiga as the slipping mother or Celia Weston as the nut-job fundamentalist mother-in-law who can’t stand her Jewish daughter-in-law. But Rockwell. So much of this film is Rockwell the husband, the father, struggling to maintain. Ratliff’s wasted making thrillers. Sitting here, thinking about the film and how well Ratliff shot it, had it edited, had it scored, how well Rockwell worked in the field Ratliff provided… It’s a thing of wonder. Watching Sam Rockwell run down the streets of New York, with Ratliff’s composition and Nico Muhly’s music–it gave me pause. I hadn’t realized I needed to see moments like those on film and now I have and I can’t believe I went without.

The other nice thing about Joshua is the script’s willingness to let the viewer horrify him or herself. It’s an old trick–James Whale and The Old Dark House in 1932; it works just as well seventy-six years later. There’s also an incredibly nice save at the end–did I already mention it?–but I can’t spoil it.

Like I said, Kogan’s really good. He really seemed to understand what his performance needed to do, which is rare with kid in a thriller, especially a bad seed. Weston gets to go nuts because her character’s awful. This film’s the first I’ve seen Farmiga in and it’s a thriller, so it’s probably not a good measuring device, but she does very well in a lot of it. One of Joshua‘s major problems is it’s too thought-out. A little too intelligent in the writing of the characters and their problems. It’s incredibly boring too, but in that good way. So, at one point or another, everyone eventually gets cheated by the genre.

But it’s so well-made, it doesn’t really matter. I mean, as I write this post, my fantasy film for 2010–is that year going to be Odyssey Two or The Year We Make Contact… I guess I have a bit to decide–anyway… I want Ratliff and Rockwell to adapt Ordinary People. That fervent desire has nothing to do with Joshua, I suppose, but it’d be amazing.

2/4★★

CREDITS

Directed by George Ratliff; written by David Gilbert and Ratliff; director of photography, Benoît Debie; edited by Jacob Craycroft; music by Nico Muhly; production designer, Roshelle Berliner; produced by Johnathan Dorfman; released by Fox Searchlight Pictures.

Starring Sam Rockwell (Brad Cairn), Vera Farmiga (Abby Cairn), Celia Weston (Hazel Cairn), Dallas Roberts (Ned Davidoff), Michael McKean (Chester Jerkins), Alex Draper (Stewart Slocum), Nancy Giles (Betsy Polsheck), Linda Larkin (Ms. Danforth), Stephanie Roth Haberle (Pediatrician) and Jacob Kogan (Joshua Cairn).


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