The Reeler


July 5, 2007


Polished but hollow horror tale succumbs to all ambiguity, all the time

Funny-freaky without going too far (or far enough) either way, George Ratliff's Joshua is a sort of reverse-image Hell House. In his justly acclaimed 2001 doc, Ratliff focused on an evangelical Halloween haunted-house where all of society's Christian-labeled illnesses were concentrated in one cheesy, dramatic tour-de-force. Teen drinking, abortion, pre-marital sex, Satanism et al. were evinced by over-emotive amateur actors, then purged in the prayer room.

There’s no such room in Joshua's house, which may be part of the problem. Joshua (Jacob Kogan) is a 9-year-old bad seed, a prep-school savant whose unnerving obsession with Egyptian mummification doesn’t bode well for the family gerbil. His loving but utterly under-equipped parents -- Brad (Sam Rockwell) and Abby (Vera Farmiga) -- already feel intellectually outclassed by their kid, and mostly leaving him alone. "I was the kind of kid who probably would have picked on him," Brad confesses to Joshua's teacher, but he's scrupulously caring and indulgent as a dad. Everyone leaves Joshua alone; in return, Joshua begins a reign of ambiguous terror.

What does Joshua want and why? Jacob Kogan is a remarkably assured child actor, and he helps Ratliff hide his hand. It's the Elephant approach to horror-filmmaking, where we’re given every possible option but no one option is assured. The problem may be (choose as many as may apply) too little parenting, too little religion, too much religion, too many extracurriculars, too few extracurriculars, too much money, too much dedication to helping the poor, the corrupting influence of big-city life. (“This isn’t a home,” hisses Brad’s mom, “this is an apartment.”) Hell House showed a society trying to make sense of what they saw as an evil world by anatomizing it to break the mystique; Joshua goes the opposite route, throwing in all the possibilities and never indicating what the root of all evil might be.

Maybe the fact that most horror movies have one not particularly subtle subtextual throughline is a good thing. Instead, Joshua offers up a few shock scares in the first half before descending into all ambiguity, all the time. The results are strongly watchable, even if they never add up to much. Ratliff constructs his scenes on documentary lines, with nervy handheld cameras that seem to be observing the players rather than dictating what they do next. The horror here is no-F/X; this isn't a kid with creepy red contacts.

Too bad Ratliff goes so far from pandering that he forgets to offer up enough memorable gonzo set pieces. Joshua's piano recital is the stuff YouTube clips are made of, but much of the second half plays like a really long set-up to the punchline; a horror movie without outrageous bits or a creeping sense of dread is bereft of true
momentum. Accomplished and mostly intelligent (Vera Farmiga's awful performance aside, all squeaking and weeping), Joshua comes up short in both meaning and rote scares. Ratliff offers up a polished but hollow core, a mélange of vague fears deftly served but with no reward or catharis. It's not that he needs a definite moral -- Hell House demonstrates the dangers of having an all-too-coherent worldview -- but ultimately, it's hard to know or particularly care what
Joshua's really about.

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