Vera Farmiga must be one of our great actresses -- for the first two-thirds of Joshua, she not only kept me enraptured by her performance, but also made me think I was watching a good movie. She plays the wife of a go-getter investment banker (Sam Rockwell), and the two of them share a lavish apartment in way-upscale Manhattan -- the kind of place where only the most abnormal problems are able to slip through the net. And so one does, in the form of the title character, the couple's bizarre nine year-old son who vomits at hearing Christmas carols, embalms his stuffed animal -- "this will guarantee him a glorious afterlife," he tells his father -- and sends off such an utterly emotionless, unlovable vibe that his parents huddle close together whenever conversing with him, like two lawyers who need to consult during a tricky business meeting. Anyone reading this script would be dead certain by page ten that they were in for a re-tread of The Omen, but it's thanks to Farmiga that the movie keeps you guessing, for a while.
It's made clear early on that her character suffered some kind of off-the-charts post-partum depression after the birth of Joshua (Jacob Kogan), and as the film opens, she's just given birth to a second child, one that mom and dad silently hope will not grow to have the demeanor of an adolescent Jeffrey Dahmer, like Joshua does. Joshua is never really a mystery to us -- he's consistently weird, but Farmiga frequently interrupts the story of his weirdness with her own story, one that's brimming with possibilities and wild misdirection. Her flat, spongy face is inexplicably swelled up with tears for much of the film, making us ask questions like: Is post-partum depression driving her mad? Did it also drive her mad nine years ago, during the Joshua pregnancy? Is Joshua's odd behavior somehow connected to that? There's one brief scene that nearly stands the movie on its head, when, in a quiet moment, Farmiga's character begins to talk to Joshua in a way that mothers do not talk to their nine year-old sons. It sends chills.
Sadly, the movie is insistent on telling the 'Joshua is weird' story, even though I'm fairly certain that not even director George Ratliff knows exactly what the point of that particular story is. Joshua is presented to us acting weird in a series of scenes, but the degree of weirdness alternates wildly. There are scenes of innocuous weirdness, such as one where he throws himself into the line of fire during dodgeball so he can get hit, sit it out and read a book. Then there are more bizarre episodes that make him seem like some kind of high-functioning autistic, such as one in which he gives a piano recital and seems to screw it up on purpose as his parents look on in horror from their seats in the audience. The longer the movie goes on, however, the less Joshua seems just harmlessly weird and the more he begins to comes across as devilish. Once the movie is forced to actually start to 'go somewhere,' that's the direction it goes in. It gives us a milquetoast version of something we've seen before.
While Farmiga gets to do some acting, Sam Rockwell is saddled with most of the plot's heavy lifting, and certainly had the harder job. His character is a saintly husband and father who we recognize as harboring some residual feelings for Joshua even though the boy has clearly never expressed anything approaching love in his life. As Joshua's behavior begins to grow more outrageous, Rockwell has to respond like a decent father would, while Farmiga's character is lost in the haze of her depression drama. Rockwell is also saddled with having to play to being the son of a mother who is an aggressive evangelical Christian. Now, I'm not suggesting high-powered investment bankers in Manhattan can't have mothers who are unreconstructed bible-thumpers, but I never bought this left-field subplot for a minute. There isn't the slighest bit of mother-son chemistry between Rockwell and Celia Weston, who plays the mother. Instead, it feels much more like director Ratliff, who also directed Hell House, was trying to shoehorn in a 'religious nut' character who had no place in the movie.
Joshua ultimately proves to be a rather formulaic film, and a bad one at that, thanks to a stupendously botched third act that feels like something a studio lackey came up with after everyone else gave up. Rarely has there been a movie that so boxed itself into a corner and was unable to find a way out, and poor Sam Rockwell is trapped right in the middle of it, blowing up all of the character work he's laid down and being dragged along by the demands of a runaway script. Thankfully, by the time the endgame shenanigans commence, Farmiga has, by way of an unnecessary plot twist, completely disappeared from the film. You can almost imagine her agent, who was clever enough to land her the coveted female lead in The Departed, somehow stepping in and making sure that her character would simply not be involved in the ending of this film, so as to avoid having the reputation of a rising actress tarnished by such nonsense. Still, Joshua is required viewing for Farmiga completists, if no one else.