Shallow characterization is a bad omen for talented performers


on July 06, 2007 by Jay Antani
A clunky collision of the bad-seed suspense tropes of The Omen with the parent-child dynamics of your standard domestic drama, director/co-writer George Ratliff's thriller Joshua stars Sam Rockwell and Vera Farmiga as Brad and Abby Cairn, a Wall Street yuppie and his wife, who is unraveling after just giving birth to their second child. When we first meet Abby, a woman with a history of postpartum depression, she seems as frail as twigs and a single eye-twitch away from mental collapse. Meanwhile, her mother-in-law Hazel (Celia Watson) is a religious nut, eager to evangelize to her clan. Even weirder is the Cairns' older son, the titular Damien-esque Joshua (Jacob Kogan) — blank-faced, given to cryptic musings and playing excessively difficult piano duets alongside Ned (Dallas Roberts), Abby's bland but sweet-natured gay brother.

Joshua isn't creepy so much as boring, a caricature of all those demon-children from horror-movie lore. Plus, he's got the irritating habit of fastening the top collar button of his shirts and sneaking up on you in the dark. With Joshua around playing bizarre piano pieces or staring vacantly at her, it's no wonder Abby crumbles, looking like she's just emerged from her dryer's spin cycle, even before the movie's first act wraps. Also, their newborn daughter keeps bawling incessantly, to her parents' distress.

All signs point to Joshua as the family troublemaker, the cause of mother and baby's worsening situation and of a tragedy that befalls Hazel, prompting Brad to take it upon himself to expose his conniving son. The film's real problem, though, isn't the boy but Ratliff's by-the-numbers strategy of repeating the same beats of oddball exchanges with Joshua followed by an extended set piece and a jolt of panic. In good quality horror, fear and suspense arise from a deepening sense of character, not a noisier sense of one.

As Brad, Rockwell essentially rehashes the bemused smirking and chuckling that have become his stock in trade. It's not that he isn't a talent (Rockwell's work has been enjoyable in the past), but rather the underdeveloped nature of his role gives Rockwell little else but his shtick to fall back on. We never get a handle on Brad: He seems more a put-upon husband and father than an actively engaged individual. Farmiga, as well, has been a solid player elsewhere (most recently in The Departed ), but her performance never builds in sympathy before it spirals rapidly downward till her Abby's a quivering, inaccessible basket case.

Matters of performance in Joshua, however, are not so much a reflection of the performers' abilities than of writers Ratliff and David Gilbert's poorly conceived material and Ratliff's own blunt-edged direction. For all his actors' efforts, Ratliff's characters lack complexity and exist merely for plot and effect. Rockwell claws at the walls to keep Joshua from bottom-of-the-barrel oblivion, and he manages, aided by the script's sole saving grace concerning what to do with Ned — a character that the material could've easily relegated to victim or culprit status. That he is neither gives us a too-little-too-late indication of cleverness in a script so devoid of it.

Distributor: Fox Searchlight
Cast: Sam Rockwell, Vera Farmiga, Celia Watson, Dallas Roberts, Michael McKean and Jacob Kogan
Director: George Ratliff
Screenwriters: David Gilbert and George Ratliff
Producer: Johnathan Dorfman
Genre: Thriller
Rating: R for language and some disturbing behavior by a child
Running time: 105 min.
Release date: July 6, 2007 ltd
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