No, the title character in this would-be chiller is a little boy who’s much closer to Satan than savior. There are few things sadder than a film that yearns to be badass and winds up simply being bad, but that’s where this Joshua lands. Joshua Cairn (newcomer Jacob Kogan, a bad fit) is the 9-year-old son of investment banker Brad (Sam Rockwell) and stay-at-home mom Abby (Vera Farmiga). As the movie begins, they’ve just welcomed Josh’s baby sister into the world. That’s apparently when the trouble starts, though it’s a problem that we don’t know what Joshua was like beforehand. However, we do know the drill with movies like this. The kid is stiffly formal in his manner and speech, never cracks a smile, and scares the grown-ups by materializing behind them with a deadpan stare on his face. Meanwhile, household pets and people suffer mysterious accidents around him, and everyone scratches their heads, thinking, “It couldn’t be the boy, could it?”
There is an unexpected element in the early going that threatens to make the movie interesting: Abby’s battles with an additional demon known as postpartum depression. Director/co-writer George Ratliff, best known for his 2001 documentary Hell House, shows some cleverness in introducing this and makes good use of the Cairns’ realistically small Manhattan apartment, where there’s no escaping either Joshua’s physical presence or the sound of him practicing Beethoven on the piano. The film achieves genuine creepiness in one scene when Brad watches some old home movies and discovers that his son has been making movies of his own late at night.
This, however, only raises the question why Brad doesn’t show such damning video evidence to anyone else when he finally gets around to trying to convince people that Joshua is evil. Before this, the characters all spend the first two-thirds of the film turning in the same circles, with Abby copiously weeping and irrationally lashing out, Brad cheerfully insisting that everything is all right, and Joshua maliciously biding his time and glowering. The boy finally sets about destroying his parents in the last third, and the dramatic developments arrive so quickly on each other’s heels that the whole edifice collapses. When a movie’s meant to build toward the execution of the main character’s diabolical master plan, it’s hugely deflating when the plan turns out to be just so much nonsense. The parents aren’t enough of a match for the boy, either — Joshua is so brilliant that his teachers want him to skip two grades at school, but the way Brad and Abby are written, they’d be crushed by a much dumber kid. Ratliff’s directorial restraint makes Joshua easier to sit through than other entries in this field. Still, this frigid exercise never comes close to working any dark mojo.
Starring Jacob Kogan, Sam Rockwell, and Vera Farmiga. Directed by George Ratliff. Written by David Gilbert and George Ratliff. Rated R.