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Joshua (George Ratliff, 2007)


Joshua, the first fiction feature from documentarian George Ratliff, provides a secular spin on the demon seed genre, but flounders under its own pretentions. Right away the movie establishes a vibe that recalls Jonathan Glazer’s Birth through its upper-class New York setting, its creepy, child-centric plot, and in its pre-credits focus on a newborn baby. When all is said and done, though, there’s no question that this movie is both psychologically and stylistically inferior to that one. The opening moments do give one hope. A scene in which the family gathers to fawn over the new addition to their home is made subtly eerie by Joshua’s piano playing, which should serve as background noise but instead overrides the dialogue. Almost immediately, though, Ratliff overplays his atmosphere. The music grows discordant. The child’s mother asks, “Do you think we can keep it quiet for the baby?” Little Joshua responds by vomiting on the living room floor. At this point it’s clear that the film is only going to work as some kind of sick satire of the family, but Ratliff expects us to take it seriously as a psychological drama.


The problem with this approach is that there’s not much for the film to explore. Ratliff never acknowledges that his audience has likely seen this setup dozens of times before, making the film feel laborious and unsurprising.  Joshua himself is a fairly preposterous screenwriter’s invention, not grounded in any recognizable reality. He’s barely established before we’re expected to begin fearing him as some kind of monster. The supposed product of his privileged environment, he is vaguely unsettling, but hardly convincing. Rockwell and Farmiga, who play his clueless, beleaguered parents are usually fine, nuanced actors, but they go from zero to shitfit here in two scenes flat because of the inelegant plotting. They don’t deliver bad performances, exactly, but they are decidedly in the service of a script that sacrifices depth for effect willingly. The problem, then, is that Ratliff fails to deliver many shocks along the way. He wants to create a slow-burning tension, but the assemblage of breast milk, broken glass, and teddy bears he’s presenting is too obvious to create any palpable sense of unease. When the film finally reaches its third act, Ratliff stops trying for subtlety at all, indulging himself in half-baked, histrionic genre tropes that largely betray what’s come before and certainly don’t lead us anywhere that we haven’t been previously in better thrillers. At best creepy fun, Joshua is shallow and disappointing.



Jeremy Heilman