A Bad Seed Sprouts on the Upper West Side

rex joshua4h A Bad Seed Sprouts on the Upper West SideJOSHUA
Running Time 105 minutes
Written By David Gilbert and George Ratliff
Directed By George Ratliff
Starring Sam Rockwell, Vera Farmiga, Jacob Kogan

Joshua is a reason for applause. Phooey to corny psychology, hidden 666 birthmarks, satanic impregnations, and other popular demon-seed staples such as cloning, sperm from Mars and the inheritance of criminal chromosomes. Joshua, the 9-year-old sociopath with the cold, expressionless eyes of the Children of the Damned and the deceptively adorable charm of the homicidal moppet Rhoda Penmark in The Bad Seed, is something entirely new: a little boy so brilliant he can outsmart, outthink, overpower and destroy every authority figure in his life with the force of a tornado before they know what hit them. A monster with the face of an angel, Joshua is doubly fearsome because he appears to have no obvious motive or agenda. He’s a bad seed for its own sake.

Joshua is a taut and suspenseful thriller so camouflaged in everyday “normalcy” that you are never sure where the next horror is coming from, and the things you expect from experience never happen at all. This uncertainty about how the sick mind of a perverse child will strike next, cloaked in the sunshine and affluence of New York’s yuppie upper middle class and enhanced by wonderful acting and intelligent, understated direction add up to a film of extraordinary skill and perception, with a refreshing absence of clichés. A superb cast headed by the vastly talented and bafflingly underrated Sam Rockwell is calmly led through the minefields of harm’s way by the gifted director George Ratliff, who co-wrote the convincing, realistic screenplay with David Gilbert. It’s quite an admirable accomplishment on all fronts. Critically renowned for his edgy portraits of assorted inmates, wackos and social outcasts from all walks of life, Mr. Rockwell eschews creepiness for a role that shines with scrubbed, all-American decency. He’s a buffed, affluent, camera-ready husband and father with a well-appointed apartment overlooking Central Park, a successful career as a hedge fund manager, one child and a baby on the way—even a soap-opera name: Brad Cairn. The only thorn in his paw is his son, Joshua. Joshua is just too perfect to be true. At 9, he prefers Ralph Lauren suits and penny loafers to jeans and Reeboks. He’s a model student, a musical prodigy who prefers Bartok to baseball; he spends hours at his Steinway piano working on chords, and rarely smiles. Imagine a child of 9 with a value system and a built-in philosophy based on cynicism and distrust. Joshua tells his dad, “You don’t have to love me—it’s not a rule or anything.” Joshua is played by Jacob Kogan, a remarkable young actor with sad eyes as big and dark as prunes, and a look of permanently controlled anxiety. When he starts cutting up his teddy bear because that’s what the Egyptians did before embalming their pharaohs, Dad senses he might be spending too much time at the office.

A cause for alarm grows into a five-star panic when Mom comes home from the hospital with the new baby sister. She’s been battling depression for years, but Joshua’s endless piano chords understandably rattle her nerves, all of the pets in the classroom at his exclusive private school suddenly die mysteriously, and somebody has been throwing away her meds. After Joshua develops an abnormal habit of staring at the cradle, the baby begins screaming in the middle of the night and cannot stop for 57 days. It begins to dawn on the audience that it might not be a good idea to leave Joshua alone with the tot. Slow on the uptake, Mom’s epiphany comes later. Between pumping breast milk from a painful medieval device and slicing open her foot on broken glass, she hops around in a cast and slides from postpartum depression into full-scale paranoid schizophrenia. Played by the intense and versatile Vera Farmiga (so good as the Romanian prostitute in Anthony Minghella’s Breaking and Entering) the hysterics come easily. Mom ends up in a sanitarium, the cherished family dog is poisoned, Dad’s mother (Celia Weston) gets pushed down a flight of stairs at the Brooklyn Museum while babysitting Joshua, and when Dad finally sees the light, it’s already too late—in more ways than one. There’s nobody left to take care of baby sister except … but enough! I don’t want to weaken your chances of developing goose bumps the size of potholes.

What could have seemed contrived in shakier hands comes together in carefully measured doses of arsenic. When the family structure crumbles out of completely viable and convincing shifts of tone, the narrative stuns you with the thought that everyone in the film is flawed and the knowledge that parenting is not for the faint-hearted. The stunning cinematography by Belgian wunderkind Benoit Debie avoids ghoulish angles and shadows; the most harrowing scenes occur on crowded streets under dazzling blue skies. (Central Park on Sunday afternoon never seemed so daunting.) Throughout, there is the committed, sincere, and quietly inspired performance by Mr. Rockwell to keep the terrifying undercurrents grounded in moment-to-moment reality. An actor of understated charisma and a fully researched understanding of craft, he usually chooses roles with tinsel and show, like the many sides of loopy Chuck Barris in Confessions of a Dangerous Mind. This time he risks losing his weirdness in the role of a handsome, contemporary and privileged man losing control of every nuance of his life, but he ends up proving that there is no such thing as conventionality when an electrifying actor is in the center spot. He’s still unique, sensitive and riveting, only different, and Joshua is quite a showcase.