It's tempting to write Joshua off quickly as flawed or overly convenient; I nearly did. But the more I think and read about this film, the more I realize there is a TON lying beneath the surface. Joshua is one of the most skilled family-based narratives I've seen in this genre, if not of any movie; there is so, so much to interpret and theorize about. This movie is an exemplar of the term "psychological thriller", which gets bandied about like a cheap whore even though no one truly understands what it means. This is NOT a horror movie. There are a couple of mildly scary parts, but Joshua is like fellow 2007 public pariah Bug: a slow dark drama whose frightful elements are used to mislead people into watching it.
It's hard for me to discuss this at length, because most of it is spoiler material. Try overlapping the traits of Joshua's family members, parents and relatives alike, and some things will start to make a lot more sense. An intelligent but slightly devious father and a feverishly determined mother, specifically, seems to be the recipe to create a child who wants his way and knows many paths to get it. For added flavor, add fundamentalist grandparents and a sexually ambiguous uncle. Once you start taking apart the elements of his family life, some of the movie's gummier parts make a hell of a lot more sense, especially the jarring ending.
And thus, Joshua is created. He is a pitiable character; not sympathetic, Lord no, but there were scenes where I felt pretty damn bad for the kid. He's completely miserable and the only way for him to fix that is to wreck a lot of people's lives. He is crazy, but he knows what he needs to be happy. If you don't understand what these needs are, pay close attention to certain scenes, such as the piano recital and the dialogue Joshua has with his dad about sports and being "weird." Kid's deeply damaged.
Turning an eye to the rest of the family is just as rewarding; there is really a lot to be probed in these strange, miserable people. The success of all of these characters is 50% the brilliant screenplay by George Ratliff and 50% the equally brilliant performances by all players involved. Sam Rockwell is totally seamless as always, selling his part with an energy that is both intelligent and darkly comic. Vera Farmiga's something new: there is a raw, realistic quality about her acting here, which can make her seem a little off-putting, but she's just a lot less mawkish than the part seems to call for. One thing I'd change about Joshua is that I wish there was more for Abby Cairn to do aside from scream and cry, but that's...her personality, like it or not. Celia Weston is reliably great; Dallas Roberts sells a small part quite well. Jacob Kogan's performance is interesting, because the character he spins is profoundly awkward and you can never really tell if that was the purpose of his portrayal, or just amateurish acting. I give him the benefit of the doubt, simply because of a handful of absolutely chilling scenes that I can't see any other child actors pulling off.
The last thing that I really loved about this film, surprisingly, was the cinematography. Joshua is an awesome-looking movie. The set design reflects the feel of the film immaculately, creating an apartment that seems well-worn but reveals itself to be totally sterile (which even the movie makes note of.) Camera tricks themselves are impressive, whether it's the sprinkling of jittery tracking shots or the evocative, lingering still images. It is really a treat to see a movie in this genre look so unique.
I was sure I'd like this movie before I even saw it, because I read it for what it was - a slow-burning, evil drama about a screwy family. And that's what Joshua is. Not a horror film, not a slasher, not an Omen clone. A sleek, angry dissertation of one fucked-up kid and the tiny things wrecking him.