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Friday, August 1, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 81.0° F  A Few Clouds


The bad seed

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Let's face it, some kids are just pure evil. But what if they're both pure evil and brilliant, perhaps even a genius? Joshua, a psychological thriller from first-time director George Ratliff, poses that question, and the answer seems to be that the little brat will systematically destroy the ties that bind. As played by Jacob Kogan, who's so freshly scrubbed you want to pinch his cheeks until they bleed, Joshua is an odd duck at best, a budding serial killer at worst. A piano prodigy, he long ago left "Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star" behind for Bartok and his own demon-child improvisations. But it's his overall demeanor that marks Joshua as a kid to keep an eye on. He has this way of suddenly appearing, as if beamed down from outer space. And his expressions are so blank you keep expecting his parents to press the reboot button.

They're Brad and Abby Cairn, an Upper East Side master and mistress of the universe played by Sam Rockwell and Vera Farmiga. Despite having endured a nasty case of postpartum depression after Joshua was born, Abby has just given birth to a beautiful baby girl who apparently intends to spend the first several months of her life crying. That sends Abby, who was already on the brink, over the edge, which is exactly what Joshua seems to have had in mind. But we don't know this for sure, because Ratliff, who co-wrote the script with David Gilbert, wants us to wonder whether we have a perfectly normal or a perfectly abnormal child on our hands. Unlike The Omen, where things were revealed to be the devil's handiwork, Joshua plays into our more pedestrian fear that, although we may love our children, we may not like them very much.

And as long as the movie keeps everything up in the air, it casts a spell - a dark spell, like one out of a Grimm's fairy tale. Ratliff indulges in horror-movie tropes, which don't really gel with the realistic tone he's established. And the movie could perhaps stand to be even creepier, Kogan not quite able to take us on a tour of Joshua's mental catacombs. But once it has you in its grip, it doesn't easily let go. As Abby, Farmiga does a nice rendition of a woman still haunted by the screams of the delivery room. And Rockwell pulls off the difficult task of convincing us that a man could love his child right up to the very moment he suspects him of murder. But it's Kogan, with his little-psycho vibe, who has to carry the movie. Ratliff keeps him way over on the side of the frame, so that the movie screen is just as unbalanced as he is.

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