Creeping you out

At first glance, George Ratliff’s film Joshua seems like nothing more than a remake of the 1976 cult favorite The Omen.

At first glance, George Ratliff’s film Joshua seems like nothing more than a remake of the 1976 cult favorite The Omen. A 9-year-old boy named Joshua, who looks suspiciously like Damien (they even have the same haircut), begins to act strangely when his sister Lilly is born.

He pretends to embalm his stuffed animals. He begins to ask strange questions about death. He walks the dog and then it drops dead. Baby Lilly begins to cry nonstop for days on end.

But as it turns out, the answers here aren’t as simple as they were in The Omen–Joshua is not the spawn of Satan, but the son of Brad and Abby Cairn, an affluent Manhattan couple. What does it take to raise a monster?

This self-proclaimed psychological thriller sometimes lacks thrills. But while Joshua is slow-moving, it’s rarely sluggish. After 106 minutes of lingering ambiguity and mounting tension, Joshua expertly does what films of this genre are supposed to do: disturb.

At first, the family appears normal, even happy. Joshua, brilliantly portrayed by newcomer Jacob Kogan, is a precocious but socially awkward piano prodigy. Brad Cairn (Sam Rockwell) is some sort of successful stock market mogul with a corner office. His wife Abby (Vera Farminga) is a young and hip stay-at-home mom.

As Joshua’s behavior gets weirder and weirder, causing slowly mounting tension among the family members, the audience is left to wonder whether something is really wrong with Joshua or if he’s just going through a hard time. In an era where being selfish, spoiled and sociopathic–a la Paris Hilton–are popular qualities, the story of Joshua and his rich, doting parents raises some interesting questions.

Is Joshua evil or misunderstood? Does he want to murder his entire family, or is he just acting out because of the new baby? Or does he just feel unloved by his rich and flighty parents?

What makes Joshua so compelling is that it doesn’t scare as much as it fills the viewer with an odd discomfort that lingers, even when the movie is done. Something is terribly wrong with this family, but it’s hard to pinpoint what.

Abby emerges as a clingy, somewhat neurotic mother. She worries that her family thinks she’s incapable of taking care of her newborn. Joshua’s father is bursting with a nervous, manic energy–he insists on acting upbeat, positive and totally condescending when it’s the most inappropriate. When Abby is out of her mind, hallucinating on the anti-depressant medication she takes for post-partum depression, Brad talks to her like she’s a member of a little league team (“Come on, sport. Buck up. Everything’s gonna be A-OK!”) We get a sense that no one in the family is exactly at ease with anyone else, and that Joshua’s parents have been walking on eggshells with him since he was a baby.

Even seemingly innocuous scenes are thrown off by clanging piano music, or two conversations occurring at once–and all while baby Lilly is forever screaming in the background.

It’s all very stressful to watch. Adding to the already unbearable tension is Joshua’s heartbreaking awkwardness. Shortly after Brad bawls over the body of his dead dog, Joshua drops down to do the same, even repeating the words his father used. Is he mocking his father, or simply trying to imitate emotions that he is incapable of feeling? Whichever it is, you’ll be squirming.

The only disappointing part of Joshua is the conclusion. It seems tacked on, like test audiences weren’t happy with the original. But whether or not the conclusion is satisfying is irrelevant. When the credits roll, whether you feel terror, unease or just irritation, Joshua‘s nearly assiduous tension is a serious attack on the senses. It’s bound to leave you feeling somehow unsettled.