Friday, January 8, 2010
Rants on Joshua
I have seen horror movies about murderers, psychotics, rapists, child molesters and other assorted social deviants. Monsters of all shapes and sizes, ranging from tiny bugs to vampires, have appeared before me. I have seen people stabbed in showers, attacked by enormous monsters, become possessed by the devil and catch a quickly mutating zombie virus. Aliens have busted out of guts, faces have been torn off and worn as masks and heads have become completely detached from bodies. I may not have seen "everything" when it comes to horror films, a genre I'm not as proficient in as I would like to be, but I would like to think I've seen a majority of the "types" of scares (whether an evil person, a monster or a psychological condition) horror films offer. I was wrong. One thing I have never seen was a film like George Ratliff's Joshua, a film about the horror of the emptiness and disconnection of today's modern family.
As most movies of this usually white-upper-class-specific subgenre start out, the Cairn family appears to be perfect. Dad Brad (Sam Rockwell) has a well-paying job as a financial analyst, affording his family a comfortable and privileged lifestyle. The mother, Abby (Vera Farmiga), is a stay-at-home mom who cares for her child prodigy son Joshua (Jacob Kogan). As the film opens, Abby has just given birth to a daughter, giving the impression that their perfect family has no become even more perfect with its latest member. But, as you are probably well aware, things are only starting to go downhill for the family. As hackneyed as this opening probably sounds on paper, Joshua quietly begins to play with its ideas about deceiving appearances. While presenting themselves as this "perfect" family, none of the characters seem to really fit or feel comfortable in the world they inhabit. Brad's boss acts friendly towards him, even calling him "buddy," but as the film moves in, it becomes clear that he and Brad do not see eye to eye on very important matters. As Brad's family life continuously grows more complicated and out of control, he is not able to focus his full attention on his work. Brad expects his boss to sympathize with what he's going through. Instead, his boss insists that work will provide a good distraction for him and does not seem to grasp the idea that Brad values his family's well-being over his job. Abby does not fit in with the other mothers at Joshua's school and has no outlets from her family besides her brother. Joshua is so intelligent his teacher thinks he should skip two grades, so it is no surprise that he is a bit of a loner and outcast in his school. At one point, his dad openly admits that he would have picked on Joshua back when he was a kid.
As disconnected from their upper-class surrounding as the family appears to be, they are just as disconnected from each other. Of course, neither Brad or Abby want to admit this to themselves and instead pass the blame on the baby. We are never shown what life is like for the family before the baby is born, but as soon as she comes home, the family and the film itself literally pushes Joshua out of the picture. As the proud parents, along with Brad's parents, fawn over the new baby, Joshua never appears in the same frame with them. Instead, he is always in a separate shot with his uncle, playing around on the piano. Later on, the film uses this technique again during a dinner scene to highlight even further how out of place Joshua is in the family. Ratliff continuously cuts between Joshua's awkward questions and demeanor and Brad and Abby stalling and attempting to find the right answers for his questions.
It is not as if you can entirely blame Brad and Abby for not knowing, at times, how to react to Joshua. He belongs to that beloved movie tradition of child characters who are wise beyond their years and act like mini-adults. Ratliff and Kogan amp up the natural creepiness that child actors possess for the ultimate benefit of the film. Sometimes, Joshua's creepiness serves to show just how empty Brad and Abby have become due to their upper-class lifestyle. When the family dog dies under mysterious circumstances (the film casts suspicion on Joshua but the mystery is never solved one way or another), Brad puts on a big display, sobbing uncontrollably in an exaggerated manner like he's in front of an audience. Joshua sees this and mimics him exactly, showing Brad just how ridiculous and insincere he looks. Other times, his creepiness is just a natural result of his high intelligence. How do you respond to your son when he tells you that it's okay if you don't love him or when he shows you the mummification process on his stuffed panda bear? Joshua's thought process and emotional age is so beyond what Brad and Abby are capable of handling, they truly have no idea what to say to him. This disconnect has gotten so deep that even a "normal" kid question like "Do you ever feel weird?" prompts Brad to mumble some bullshit answer that doesn't even answer the question.
As the film moves on and increasingly strange things happen to the family, all signs seem to point to Joshua. I mean, he's creepy, not exactly warm toward the new baby (video tape evidence of him telling the baby that "No one will ever love him" eventually surfaces) and has the ability to read people's emotions and manipulate them, so he must be the culprit, right? I'm not 100 percent sure. First of all, we never explicitly see Joshua harm anyone. He may say and do strange things, but the camera never catches him doing anything that Brad and Abby accuse him of. Secondly, the faster Brad slips into his increasing paranoia, the more his behaviors become suspicious. He's so convinced that Joshua is the cause of all the family's recent hardships, he literally locks him out his room and the kitchen cabinets, afraid of what he might do next. When Brad brings a psychologist to meet with Joshua and hopefully prove his suspicions, he's so anxious for vindication he practically leers at Joshua across the dinner table. After the psychologist reveals her findings (she thinks Joshua is being severely abused), Brad becomes enraged, convinced that Joshua had the foresight to look online and fake the results of the psychologist's art therapy tests. Eventually, bruises start to appear on Joshua and Brad manically tries to figure out who did it to him. Joshua refuses to answer, which makes way for a neat trick on the narrative's part. Is his refusal to answer an admittance of his guilt--he did it to himself and doesn't have anyone to blame--or is it proof that Brad is abusing him without realizing it? Has Brad descended so far into madness he starts hitting Joshua during hysterical fits and doesn't remember it afterwards? Joshua's silence makes sense since he might be afraid of prompting another attack if he accuses him directly to his face. So what's the answer? Who knows. Ratliff is clever enough to almost directly name Joshua as the bad guy but also sneak in hints that suggest that that resolution may be too clear cut. It's this ambiguity that's most striking about Joshua and will leave you pondering this film for days afterwards. A-