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‘Joshua’ is a surprisingly good thriller

A long lineage of evil-child movies — from “The Bad Seed” to “The Exorcist” to “The Omen” — has spawned “Joshua,” which is at once familiar and yet startlingly inventive and thrilling. By Christy Lemire
/ Source: The Associated Press

A long lineage of evil-child movies — from “The Bad Seed” to “The Exorcist” to “The Omen” — has spawned “Joshua,” which is at once familiar and yet startlingly inventive and thrilling.

The feature debut from director and co-writer George Ratliff, best known for the documentary “Hell House,” is a tantalizing, tense thriller in the most genteel of settings, which adds to the suspense.

Hedge fund manager Brad Cairn (Sam Rockwell) and his wife, Abby (Vera Farmiga), have just brought their newborn daughter home to their high-rise apartment on Manhattan’s Upper East Side when strange things begin happening. The baby won’t stop crying and Abby can’t sleep; in her increasingly fragile state, she turns reluctantly to pills for comfort. Then she starts feeling paranoid, and Farmiga makes it seem as if she’s slowly losing her grasp on reality, right before your eyes.

Most of the action takes place inside the apartment, and Ratliff makes great use of its long, dark hallway. There’s also construction going on upstairs, and the incessant buzzing and pounding add to the sense of claustrophobia.

In the middle of all this turmoil is the couple’s 9-year-old son, Joshua (played by the subtly creepy Jacob Kogan), a serious, sensitive boy with a talent for the piano and a flair for the dramatic. He always seems to be around when horrific events occur (the pet rats die in his classroom, for example) but he never seems directly responsible. And some of his potential red-flag behavior, like disemboweling his stuffed animals, could just be a normal case of a child acting out to get attention.

We know better — or at least we know enough to be suspicious. We’ve been down this cinematic road more than a few times before.

What makes “Joshua” different, besides the haunting cinematography from Benoit Debie with its deep reds and blues, is the way Ratliff and co-writer David Gilbert have developed their characters. The parents don’t just stand by feebly while their world disintegrates — they react like real people. And Joshua isn’t obviously menacing from the start. He just seems understandably jealous and a little sad. He’s a bit of a misfit with his perfect hair, impeccably preppy clothes and intellectual curiosity beyond his years. It kinda makes you feel sorry for him — for a while, at least.

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“Do you ever feel weird about me, your weird son?” Joshua asks one night as his dad is tucking him into bed. Brad reacts supportively, lovingly, the way any good father would. But Rockwell, who’s made a career out of characters on the edge of reason, gives the role more nuance than you might expect. He offers a hint at what Brad was like before he was someone’s husband and father — back when he was still fun and maybe a little crazy.

Celia Weston is doting and eerie at the same time as Brad’s know-it-all mother, Hazel, a born-again Christian who wants the baby to be baptized, much to the annoyance of Abby, who’s Jewish. And Dallas Roberts makes the most of sporadic supporting appearances as Abby’s gay brother, Ned, a Broadway producer who supports Joshua’s obvious musical talent. He’s also the first to recognize what’s going on when Joshua intentionally mangles “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star” during a school concert.

The moment is chilling. But if “Joshua” doesn’t frighten you, it’ll at least make you think twice about having kids.