Shot in wide-angled lens, the apartment in which the Cairn family resides could be any market-trading, publisher-dictating, money-horny Manhattanite's family bungalow. The rooms have respectably high ceilings, there's space for a big ol' piano, and there's even enough room for one of those nifty new fridges with enough compartments to be able to fit tons of leftovers from the Tribeca Grill. The halls look shadowy, and in the daytime the sun comes in basically as a vomit-colored fog. Only in an apartment with this sort of eerie ambience could a so-creepy-maybe-he's-the-devil child like Joshua Cairn be brought up by his insanely yuppie parents.
Director George Ratliff
's shift into narrative cinema isn't completely unlike his hair-raising Trinity Church documentary Hell House. Though intriguingly unexplored, the idea of religious fundamentalism gets breached in a scene when the young Joshua (Jacob Kagon
) takes a trip to church with his grandmother (Celia Weston
). He later announces that he is prepared to accept Christ; his mother (Vera Farmiga
) responds by reminding her mother-in-law and Joshua that she is a "big, fat Jew". The father (Sam Rockwell
) takes his son's eccentricities and disturbing statements ("you don't have to love me") with a shambling good nature, only truly breaking down when the family dog dies. In a wicked twist, Ratliff only hints at the father's possible infidelity and revels in the lame AM radio rock he sings as he enters his apartment palace. Article continues below
The first half of Joshua is all innuendo and intimation: there's never a minute where we actually witness the disturbing child doing anything specifically evil. Joshua, who has a knack for quietly coming up on people, attempts to mummify his pet panda and turns a talent-show rendition of "Twinkle Twinkle" into an abstract performance piece that wouldn't be out-of-place on a Scott Walker LP. Meanwhile, momma bear begins to go batty: Her newborn daughter won't stop crying, she's hearing people come through the ceiling, and her mental exhaustion has made it difficult for her to lactate. Her brother (Dallas Roberts
) tries to help out by distracting the mother-in-law and being a surrogate father to Joshua, but it's to no avail. In a scene of pure creep, a mother-son game of hide-and-go-seek goes awry when the mother can't find either the son or her newborn.
Ratliff loses his focus in the second half of the film. Rather than holding us at arms-length as to whether it's just the overwhelming worries of the bourgeois parents or Joshua's actual evil causing all the havoc, the film becomes a sloppy cat-and-mouse ploy. Like other classic demon-child films (The Omen
, Demon Seed), the film hinges on the stoic believability of the child in question, and Kogan does a solid job of keeping us in suspense of whether Joshua is just a weird kid or a real monster. The inevitable problem comes when Ratliff has to answer that question rather than just leaving us to wonder what's going on. That ultimately makes the film easily predictable and defuses the moments of suspense that are still to be had in the second half. Still, it's nice to see a film that returns to the psychological queasiness of films like Polanski
's Rosemary's Baby, if only for an hour.