Joshua (DVD)

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Coming to DVD Tuesday, January 8th

Cast:

Sam Rockwell as Brad Cairn

Vera Farmiga as Abby Cairn

Celia Weston as Hazel Cairn

Dallas Roberts as Ned Davidoff

Michael McKean as Chester Jenkins

Jacob Kogan as Joshua Cairn

Directed by George Ratliff

Review:

Whether a subconscious manifestation of reluctant adulthood or just another sign of Hollywood’s reliance on old standards, the Bad Seed continues to rear its deceptively innocent face among frequently recycled horror themes. There was certainly no shortage of sociopathic schoolchildren in 2007, with arguably the most anticipated horror film of the year (Rob Zombie’s “Halloween” remake) largely devoted to the exploits of a killer tike. But while all of horror fandom was busy babysitting a new Michael Myers, we really should have been watching “Joshua.”

On a basic level, nine-year-old Joshua Cairn (Jacob Kogan) has a lot in common with his cinematic cousin in Haddonfield. He’s a bit of an outsider at school, his home environment is increasingly unstable, and he shares a bond with his baby sister that can best be described as curious. When not sneaking up on people in the dark, Joshua likes to pass his time extracting the guts from animals (be they the stuffed variety or otherwise). But unlike the loud, trashy after-school special that Zombie threw up on cinema screens last summer, “Joshua” approaches this troubled child psyche with a sophistication more akin to “Rosemary’s Baby,” “The Exorcist,” or “The Omen” – all of which are referenced either directly or in tone throughout this dark, deliberately paced thriller about a strange boy’s quiet plot to tear his family apart.

Sam Rockwell plays Brad, the father trying to hold it all together. Sort of a hip, everyman take on the Gregory Peck character from “The Omen,” Brad is a Wall Street broker still coming to terms with his somewhat bewildering overnight success and entrance into the upper echelons of Manhattan society. Brad and his wife Abby (Vera Farmiga) are blessed with a remarkable son in Joshua, a child prodigy wise far beyond his years and more inclined toward playing his parents’ grand piano than a PS3. But when a new baby girl enters the family’s posh apartment, post-partum depression begins to seize the household and Joshua’s exceptional aptitude becomes predatory. The family spins further into disarray as each piece of Joshua’s strange plan is revealed, leading to a conclusion that’s both fresh and affectingly bleak.

Though not necessarily innovative in his methodology (one has to wonder which parent let the kid watch “The Battleship Potemkin”), Joshua is much more enigmatic than many of his peers in the killer kid club – and perhaps all the more frightening. His actions are not the work of supernatural influence or the fulfillment of prophecy – they are his own, composed and calculated, the result, seemingly, of parenting that is not so much inadequate as it is unfortunate. In their blunt, naturalistic take on Brad and Abby’s inability to connect with their son and Joshua’s honest but emotionless expressions of love, director Ratliff (whose debut film “Hell House” documented a Texas church promoting repentance through an atypical haunted house attraction) and his co-scripter David Gilbert challenge viewers to confront a concept that’s entirely plausible and thus potentially more unnerving than spinning heads or the end of the world: the notion of parents “stuck” with a child who doesn’t need them and is fully aware of that fact.

Joshua may be the source of strife in the Cairn home, but it is Rockwell’s performance as Brad that centers the film. Struggling to balance his professional and personal life, attempting to comfort his troubled wife, and coming to grips with the disturbing events wrought by his own progeny, Rockwell is convincing and charismatic, shining in the film’s strongest moments and carrying its occasional weak spots. Sharing the screen with Rockwell in one of the film’s best sequences is Dallas Roberts as Brad’s brother-in-law, a character as equally compelling as Joshua and one handled with gentle care and humor by Roberts. Also outstanding is the cinematography of BenoÓt Debie, which makes even a park bench and a soccer field feel unsettling.

The limited theatrical run granted to “Joshua” was not indicative of a proud parent, but distributor Fox Searchlight delivers a DVD that masks the film’s indie origins. The drab, muted hues throughout the film are likely intended, but there is a paleness to the picture that may or may not be an attempt to enhance visibility at the expense of the deep atmosphere Ratliff builds. Otherwise, though, this is a solid presentation topped off with two 5.1 audio tracks and a handful of insightful extras.

Extras:

Audio commentary by director/screenwriter George Ratliff and co-writer David Gilbert:

“Sam’s hair and Joshua’s hair tell the whole movie,” says director Ratliff near the middle of this commentary track, referring to the contrast between star Sam Rockwell’s wild, untamed mane and the prepubescent Ken-doll ‘do the production team applied to youngster Jake Kogan to visually reinforce the nature of their respective characters. Ratliff and Gilbert discuss this and other subtleties of “Joshua” in their slow but steady chat, including the importance of the film’s restrained score and the influences (both real and cinematic) that inspired the story. While not a raucous duo by any stretch, Ratliff and Gilbert manage to throw in enough quips like the quote above to keep the talk entertaining.

Deleted scenes:

The strongest of the five deleted clips presented here is an exchange between Joshua and his mother set somewhere in the middle of the story, the point at which Abby, previously consumed by her responsibilities with the new baby, realizes just how removed she is from her son. The scene also helps fuel the growing disenchantment between Abby and Brad (when Abby responds to Joshua’s inquiry about what “post-partum” means with an accusatory “Where did you hear that?” it is clear she has her guesses). The other scenes, most of which run less than a minute, were wise cuts.

Cast/Crew Interviews:

“Sound Bytes” would be a more accurate title for this corner of the disc, with members of the cast and crew providing brief comments about the production. Kogan makes some astute observations about how “Joshua” differs from other bad boy flicks what people should take away from the film, while Rockwell’s description of Joshua as “eccentric” is a bit of an understatement. The most interesting material comes from production designer Rochelle Berliner, detailing how the production team created a midtown NYC apartment, including a view of Central Park, at a house miles away in Queens – a feat that could have easily translated to a dedicated featurette all its own.

Internet Advertising Campaign:

A collection of clips regurgitate interview content originally presented online, including right here at Shock.

Jacob Kogan’s Audition:

Kogan holds his own against a casting director inside what resembles a dank basement, further evidence of the film’s limited budget and impressive talent.

Dave Matthews “Fly” Music Video:

A collage of film footage accompanies the Matthews-penned tune created exclusively for the film. The song is an effectively haunting encapsulation of the film’s themes, but the video is negligible.

Trailers:

The original trailer for “Joshua” is accompanied by some poorly mastered previews for “Wrong Turn 2,” “The Tripper,” and “Cover.”