George Ratliff has been on my radar ever since he created the 2001 documentary Hell House. It took a look at the actual creation of a hell house by Trinity Church in Texas. A hell house is a church-produced haunted house filled with depictions of sin, the torments of hell, and finally a glimpse of heaven. Strange sh*t. The film is immensely entertaining and comes highly recommended by yours truly.
After six years, Ratliff has finally released his unrelated follow up to Hell House entitled Joshua. This film is not a documentary, but rather a non-conventional horrific thriller focused on a mentally disturbed young boy. Ratliff’s voice has no problem transferring to the narrative medium. If his religious views weren’t evident in Hell House, they are hammered home here. That’s not to say religion is the only topic approached in this film. It’s got a lot on its mind, and for the most part everything is in focus (excluding the slightly misguided conclusion).
Joshua (Jacob Kogan) is the first-born son of wealthy New York couple Brad and Abby Cairn (Sam Rockwell and Vera Farmiga). He’s an unconventionally tidy child with a knack for playing classical piano and has premature interests in topics like ancient Egyptian embalming techniques. Among the immediate family are Abby’s unquestionably queer brother, Ned (Dallas Roberts), and Brad’s freakishly Christian mother, Hazel (Celia Weston). Out of this daft gallery, Joshua mostly relates to Uncle Ned. Does this say something about Joshua himself? Hmm, maybe.
Upon the arrival of the Cairn’s second child, Joshua’s behavior ramps up from slightly odd to extremely bizarre. After giving away all of his toys to the poor and performing a disemboweling ritual on a stuffed animal, the boy begins to unflinchingly detach himself from his parents. Macabre events begin to transpire around the family without explanation. Could this be the work of Joshua? If so, why?
Though it’s never flat out said, I felt as though Joshua was kind of like an awkward pet to the Cairns. There is a quick shot of Joshua’s guinea pig where all of the walls of its glass cage are blue because of the reflection of a long fluorescent tube placed along the top of it. From this shot, the picture immediately cuts to Joshua lying in his bed. All of the bedroom walls are blue (with fish painted on the center one), and next to his bed sits a blue lamp. You see what they did there? Clever. Joshua is caged just like the guinea pig. His bedroom is like a big cage or aquarium, designed so others can look in on the seemingly helpless inhabitant inside. Little production design flourishes like this are used throughout the entire film. Matched with the stunning cinematography, every carefully crafted shot of this picture becomes an accomplishment on its own.
So much of the film depends upon the audience relating to Sam Rockwell’s character. As I can’t think of anybody more instantly likable than Rockwell, I’ve determined this to be a brilliant casting choice. It also helps that he has turned in the absolute best performance of his career here (my other favorite being his role in Matchstick Men). There are touches of his usual shtick, sparingly used for pitch perfect comedic notes, but beyond that, Brad Cairn is a fully realized character. More importantly, he’s a character you can’t help but care about.
Vera Farmiga is an actress we just don’t see enough of in my opinion. After her brilliant turn in The Departed, she has given another knock out performance here as a mother suffering from psychotic postpartum depression. You’ll want to slap the sh*t out of this crazy bit*h one minute, then comfort her the next. It’s a role that required walking a fine line, as overplaying it could’ve sent the whole film into Lifetime Movie Network territory. Farmiga, being the, um, sexy professional she is, nailed it.
All of the aforementioned elements merge with one another to create a thrilling unorthodox experience. It’s a genre bending film created by folks with a commendable grasp of their craft. There are moments of pure suspense laced into the picture, which literally had me grinding my teeth. At times I felt compelled to choke the life out of the little son of a bit*h title character. All of this makes it even harder for me to bring up the ending.
Without spoiling anything, I’ll just say I honestly don’t know what to make of it. It left me kind of bewildered, as two different possibilities struck me immediately. One was just so bizarre, I wasn’t sure the writer/director would even go there. The other (more likely) conclusion was completely unsatisfactory and ultimately anti-climactic. No matter what was intended, neither possibility completely ruins the entire film. Seek this one out and give it a look. I think you’ll be surprised, as long as you keep that one reservation tucked in the back of your mind. Be sure to give Hell House a go as well.