What if Rosemary's baby had to compete for parental attention with the kid from The Omen? George Ratliff's thriller Joshua manages to build on this unoriginal premise with its smart drama of family discord and self-absorption, two things far more common in Manhattan apartments than Satan. Thankfully, this time Old Scratch is nowhere in sight. Instead there's just Joshua, a quietly precocious New York 9-year-old who responds to the birth of his baby sister with something like, shall we say, evil. We know he's begun to pull the strings when he guides his toy sailboat into a flock of Central Park ducks with a mite too much pleasure, and by the time that sailboat shows up again, Joshua has wreaked an exquisite destruction on the family he's found so wanting.
As the usual series of horrors starts to accumulate, the question is not so much whether or not Joshua is threatening the baby and the pets, but why. "You don't have to love me," he tells his father, suggesting that he's not so much jealous of his new sibling as he is insulted by his parents' bourgeois patronizing. While Sam Rockwell and Vera Farmiga play the parents with touching humanity, we can sympathize with Joshua when Dad comes home rocking out to his iPod, oblivious to his son's piano playing.
Make no mistake, the kid, as played by Jacob Kogan, is still a smartass little creep. In his tiny blue blazer and John Edwards comb-over, he resembles nothing so much as a pint-sized politico, always ready with just the right rhetoric and crocodile tears. In one witty scene, he exploits his grandmother's Christian evangelism to sadistic effect. Another reliable pleasure of this sort of movie is a kind of Gothic cultural corruption. Just as in Woody Allen's Match Point, where Dostoyevsky and opera usher in dark designs, Joshua is inspired by Alice in Wonderland and, cinematically enough, discordant Bartók music. The latter finds its way into both the boy's piano playing and Nico Muhly's effective score, which are sometimes cleverly indistinguishable. On the other hand, the sinister off-key bang that marks every scene transition soon becomes goofily repetitive.
Fortunately, the film is full of Hitchcockian suspense and unsettling atmosphere. The devil, though not literally present, is in the details, whether it's the maddening construction noise from the floor above or the eerie blue glow emanating from Joshua's room. There's even a touch of Hitchcock's dark wit, as when Joshua's schoolteacher informs Dad that all the classroom pets have mysteriously died, before adding that she's using the incident for a "lesson in consumer advocacy." The final scene of this effective chiller is an oddly musical one that suggests the root of Joshua's problem. Apparently, no one told him you can't choose your parents, because that's just what he does. R. .