The frayed nerves and emotional intensity (not to mention nonstop screaming and sleep deprivation) that accompany a baby's first days make it a natural and underutilized subject for a psychological thriller. In its superior first hour, Joshua, the narrative-feature debut of Hell House director George Ratliff, uses this charged, anxious period to create an atmosphere of unbearably raw tension. In an almost heroically non-narcissistic performance, Vera Farmiga stars as a mother suffering from one seriously hellacious case of postpartum depression. An agitated mess of a woman with nerves stretched tighter than piano wire, she's never more than seconds from breaking into tears or exploding with rage at a world that has devolved into a waking nightmare.
Sadly, Joshua isn't really about how a blessed event can double as a nightmarish ordeal. No, the film is really more concerned with the baby's older brother, a creepily precocious moppet, played with doe-eyed menace by Jacob Kogan, whose jealousy over the attention his newborn sibling receives soon turns sinister. The always-strong Sam Rockwell co-stars as Kogan's father, a boyish man who can't quite understand how an extroverted jock like himself could have spawned such an otherworldly, introverted child. Rockwell and Kogan's relationship is initially sketched with tenderness and vulnerability, but as the film devolves unadvisedly into standard horror-thriller territory, it becomes increasingly one-dimensional. The film follows suit.
Farmiga's recession from her household heralds the film's fall from a classy psychological thriller suffused with atmosphere and dread into one of those silly fright flicks about a child whose angelic visage masks a heart of pure evil. It isn't an encouraging sign when the Dave Matthews song playing over the end credits qualifies as the creepiest aspect of a film's third act. It's regrettable that Joshua veers into outlandish Omen/Bad Seed/Good Son territory when the real terror lies much closer to home.