Cleansing the doors of cinematic perception... for a better now
Wednesday, May 14, 2008
That creepy JOSHUA (2007)
A much neglected horror classic in the making which I was recently turned onto is JOSHUA (2007), a creepy tale of Manhattan piano prodigy dealing with the arrival of a baby sister. Cinema is full of "catchable" killers, but JOSHUA tells a tale of a murderer so maddeningly ahead of the curve that even the audience can never be sure just quite what happened even after the credits roll. If that sounds like a drag to you then don't turn around two minutes later and tell me you like 1970s cinema, because you don't. In fact, you don't know shit.
It's a sad commentary on our times that this film wasn't promoted and embraced as the 21st century version of ROSEMARY'S BABY (1968), which it closely resembles. The critics generally liked it, but it came and went with little fanfare. (The icky and much-panned 2006 OMEN remake on the other hand grossed 54 million).
I'd chalk part of it up to the dangerously misguided post-1980s sanctification of all children as saints and angels (if they have clean urine and good genes, that is) but I've already done that, in my piece on GODSEND (2004).
Okay, here is a rehash: Not since the Spielberg "ET" model of Elliot-style sweetness supplanted little Damien (THE 1976 OMEN) has cinema dealt realistically with the moral ambiguity of childhood. In the late 1960s and 1970s there were open-eyed auteurs who saw the problem of child deification coming, and the result was box office bonanzas like ROSEMARY, EXORCIST and AUDREY ROSE (1977), followed by a spew of demonic child imitations. Today the demon children run things, and films like GODSEND, THE GOOD SON (1993), BIRTH (2004) and now JOSHUA are ignored, misunderstood, "demonized," or else championed by the few of us outside the bubble. This sort of "real" thriller drama is more cerebral and sociological than the MTV-editing and whiplash gore that's the current trend of disposable WB-casted horror remakes like the 2006 OMEN. That may be part of its problem; the other part may be the title - JOSHUA? It sounds like a lifetime drama about muscular dystrophy. There's about eight films with JOSHUA in the title, including JOSHUA: THEN AND NOW, starring James Woods, which you would never think from the banal title is actually a pretty good picture.
Anyway, back to our 2007 Sundance horror movie JOSHUA: Vera Famiga plays a mom battling postpartum depression and the horrific fall-out of having a son that just may be the most dangerously sociopathic genius ever, or maybe not. Maybe she's just crazy, and maybe there's child abuse actually happening in the family. Maybe there's some quiet little genius orchestrating half the catastrophes that ever happen in all family life....
Vera Farmiga is a new favorite actress of mine; take what she can do with a full-blooded part like this and then contrast with her under-written role in THE DEPARTED (2006), a role she still nails with much sexually wide-eyed alacrity. Sam Rockwell is also great as the dad, and the climax occurs in front of my favorite spot in all of New York City, the Alice in Wonderland statue in Central Park! I used to go there and just hate on all the little bastards climbing all over that thing, while I tried to meditate in front of it (with the giant Alice my personal savior/Buddha). Thank God someone else felt my pain, even if he did have to go to Sundance to do it.
In ROSEMARY'S BABY, part of the fun was the bizarre paranoia of it all -- was Mia Farrow just hormonal about all that tannis root nonsense? Even though you knew she wasn't, you could still enjoy the film from the point of view that maybe, just maybe, she was. There's a similar element to that at work in JOSHUA, and if you're not content to enjoy the hour or so of off-kilter family snapshots that precede the eventual mild horror outbursts, then you probably wont dig the rest of it, and you probably didn't love ROSEMARY'S BABY. If you've seen ROSEMARY'S BABY as many times as I have, then you will love JOSHUA, and I should also point you towards the very similar and even creepier Nicole Kidman vehicle, BIRTH (2004)
Like BIRTH, JOSHUA is the sort of film that offers a strange, keenly observed slice of upper-echelon metropolitan life wherein things you may think about to happen either are or are not happening, and then, suddenly, the net closes around your neck and you realize this little bastard has you. It may take a few hours or days after you view it (maybe the critics who had to rush to make a same night deadline in their review didn't have time to "sit with it") but the chilling realizations are there... they reach out of the celluloid like a pair of clutching hands, grabbing and shaking you with uncertainty as you drift off to sleep; if you could be this wrong about a movie, imagine how wrong you could be about all the other people in your life?
Special thanks to Kim Morgan for recommending this film to me. Read her own magnificent salute to insane children here and remember: don't trust anyone under 30... or over!