All eyes are on Vera Farmiga now that Oscar pundits have penciled her in for an Academy Award in the next decade, but her performance in George Ratliff’s witless Joshua does her no favors—an example of the harm an actress can do to her career by over-thinking a role that doesn’t deserve any consideration at all. Her devotion to her part is the only frightening thing about this contemptible psychological thriller about a New York City couple coming to grips with the possibility that their nine-year-old son, Joshua (a horrendous Jacob Kogan, picking one blank expression and sticking with it for the entirety of the movie), may be certifiable. Signs include his panache for appearing out of nowhere in his Log Cabin Republican school uniform, a sudden fixation with mummification, and his seemingly killer mashup of “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star,” György Ligeti’s “Musica Ricercata, II” from Eyes Wide Shut, and the opening theme of Rosemary’s Baby.
Some have called Joshua a class act, when all it does is transplant The Good Son to Birth‘s snooty upper Manhattan hood. Abby (Farmiga) begins falling to pieces after her newborn won’t stop crying for weeks on end, recalling Joshua’s own misbehavior years ago and the strain it placed on her marriage to Brad (Sam Rockwell)—a crisis that was conveniently documented in expert detail, and with suspicious use of close-up, on a VHS tape that Joshua stumbles across and adds fuel to his presumable ire. Ratliff’s consideration of Abby’s angst is cheap: His only interest is sustaining the mystery surrounding the source of her newborn’s screeching and if Joshua has any designs on ripping out the tot’s insides. Farmiga, meanwhile, treats Abby’s crisis as an outlandish parody of post-partum depression, which includes stepping on glass, rubbing blood all over her legs, and remembering a gorgeous pair of red boots she used to have.
Farmiga’s commitment to her craft is awe-inspiring, but hers is a master class in self-absorption. Kogan’s real-life little sister plays the newborn in the film, and it’s a miracle the child was allowed anywhere near Farmiga given the way she shouts over this bundle of screaming joy, throws a blanket at Rockwell while he holds the child in his arms, and tosses the baby to and fro during a sketchy standoff between Abby and her mother-in-law, Hazel (Celia Weston), after granny announces that Joshua wants to be born again—of his own volition, natch. The godless Abby has Hazel’s number, but the character’s rage toward religion goes about as far as Farmiga’s reckless physical contact with her newborn co-star. Of course, the unintentional effect of the actress’s overzealous physical thesping is that she takes some of the heat off Joshua. Audiences are allowed to entertain the possibility that Abby’s suffering is a mess of her own design.
Joshua might have been delicious if it weren’t so blatantly hateful toward women, queers, and religion. Only a fool would consider the film a sincere look at post-partum blues, and only a bigger one would take it seriously as a commentary on nurture versus nature. (Beware, spoilers ahead.) Richard Donner’s Damien had a reason for hanging his nanny and pushing his mother off a banister and, later, a hospital window—he was the son of Satan!—but Joshua’s wickedness sees no rational, logical or supernatural. He is not reacting out of jealousy, or even against his parent’s privilege, only advancing the unchecked homophobia of a script that has a boy, after having orchestrated his mother’s institutionalization, his grandmother’s death, and father’s arrest on charges of physical abuse, relishing a family unit that includes only himself, his little sister, and his flaming uncle. What it means is anyone’s guess, but our celluloid closet certainly doesn’t need the added weight.