What Sam Rockwell does best as an actor — in addition to providing an undeniably absorbing zip-crackle pizzazz to all of his roles — is to sell the long con. Narrative-wise, I’m thinking of the sorely underrated Matchstick Men, but in general, Rockwell has a knack for creating cocky, uber-charming characters who seem to be fundamentally poised on the cusp of some great hubris-propelled downfall, only to pull out of their tailspin at the last minute and rise to the top. There’s a certain blasphemy in saying this, I suppose, but the one guy who could’ve pulled off “The Narrator” better than Ed Norton in Fight Club would’ve been Rockwell. He’s fucking amazing. Like few others, the man can create context for his characters by a kind of actorly foreshadowing - he pulls, not from previous scenes in a film, but from the ones that will follow — you start to see his motivations before you even know what they are, if that makes any sense. And if you think I’m being too effusive about an actor who hasn’t really found mainstream success yet (he’s flirted with it a time or two), then clearly you haven’t seen Rockwell’s entire body of work — he’s one of this generation’s best character actors and one of the few with enough charm and good looks to also play a leading man.
So, there’s a certain genius to the casting of Rockwell opposite Jacob Kogan, who plays the title role in Joshua. Without saying too much about where the narrative ultimately ends up, it’s a lot of fun to see his character’s forward thinking actually backfire — it goes against everything one expects from a Rockwellian role. Kogan is great as the creepy, Aspergerish pre-adolescent in Joshua, but it’s Rockwell who not only sells his own part, but Kogan’s, as well. The success of any performance depends as much on reaction as it does on delivery, and both Vera Farmiga, who plays Joshua’s mother, and — to a larger extent — Rockwell make this fastidious little tale of a homicidal prodigy work, if only because their immensely believable descents into headbang-the-walls madness lend credibility to Joshua’s character.
But there’s more to Joshua than another fine Rockwell performance (incredibly, he’s even better in Snow Angels, out later this year); it’s also a pretty damn good Hitchcockian thriller. It’s a shame that comparisons to The Omen can’t be avoided because, besides for the fact that they are both nattily dressed creepy kids, there’s not a lot of similarity between Joshua and Damien. Joshua is a weird kid — prim, erudite and ridiculously smart — while Damien was a Satanic punk. Joshua is eerily well-mannered, too — in a wicked, Eddie Haskell sort of way, the kind of boy who can deliver a compliment that makes your spine tingle or a proper handshake that sends chills up your arm. Moreover, there’s no sign of Satan in Joshua; in fact, there’s nothing supernatural in the film at all, and there’s nary a drop of blood, either. The Omen was a silly horror film that preyed upon an unrealistic fear (that Satan could possess your offspring), while Joshua is a psychological inner-ear mindfuck that actually creates a fear where there wasn’t one before: Namely, that your first-born may be so jealous of a newborn sibling that he might push the stroller down a flight of stairs, not in a temperamental fit of envy, but with cold-blooded premeditation.
The Cairns are a seemingly typical upper-class Manhattan family — Brad (Rockwell) is a successful Wall-Street broker with a heel for a boss (Michael McKean, doing the dramatic version of Alec Baldwin’s comedic corpora fascist), while Abby (Farmiga) is a relatively normal, if not overly privileged mom, who suffered though some severe post-partum mental health issues after giving birth to Joshua. Nine years later, with both joy and some trepidation, she brings home Josh’s new sister, and Josh seems immediately ill-at-ease with his newfound second-fiddle status — he clearly doesn’t like the loss of attention, as the extended family gathers around for family photos in their stunning New York apartment.
So cherubic little Joshua does what most kids in his position might do, I suppose: He plays a bullshit passive-aggressive game of manipulation. “Do you ever feel weird about me, your weird son?” he asks his father, who is clearly uncomfortable with a kid with whom in some ways he has nothing in common. “You don’t have to love me.”
Soon, the truly weird shit starts to happen. The newborn won’t stop crying and Abby’s inability to calm her baby down drives her to the brink of despair, while Joshua pursues antics calculated to ultimately push her over. The family dog mysteriously dies, as do all the hamsters at Joshua’s school. Joshua does some creepy stuff with his toys, becomes fascinated with mummification, and spends a lot of time staring creepily at his mother. And let me tell you, Joshua is not a kid you want staring at you silently behind the refrigerator door at three in the morning — I don’t care if he’s your kid or not. The boy is fucking sinister.
After Mom goes all Girl, Interrupted, the real fun begins: A game of wits between father and son, as each attempts to stay one step ahead of the other. For a large part of the film, Rockwell is uncharacteristically subdued — the level-headed member of the family who tries to protect, reassure and console. But once Mom is out of the way, Joshua’s focus turns to his Dad, and Dad ain’t so easy to drive insane.
There are a lot of familiar tropes and false scares in writer/director George Ratliff’s (Hell House) film, and he certainly borrows his vibe and atmospherics from Rosemary’s Baby, but The Omen it most definitely is not. No sir. It is one hell of a suspenseful long-con, one that starts out lethargically, builds to a smolder, and then, despite a series of mini-climaxes, never offers a satisfying release — which means that when you leave the theater, you’re going to feel the disturbing presence of Joshua for quite a while longer. Lucky you.
Dustin Rowles is the publisher of Pajiba. He lives with his wife in Ithaca, New York. You may email him, or leave a comment below.
Joshua / Dustin Rowles
Film | July 5, 2007 | Comments ()