This is one of those movies that I wanted to see despite it getting mediocre reviews. The consensus I gleaned from the reviews is that the first hour is very good and creepy, but then the last hour veers off into The Good Son and Bad Seed territory [this is supposed to be a disincentive?]. Hey, that sounds fine to me. A movie’s gotta have a climax, right? Actually, as this movie proved, a movie doesn’t have to have a climax. The part about the first hour being good was wrong, too. Which is not to say that this movie doesn’t have its virtues.
We begin with Joshua, the 9-year-old in question, suddenly being taken out of his Central Park soccer game after his father gets a call—if you know what the movie’s about, you can intuit that the mother just had her baby. Joshua stands back and doesn’t get into the cab. Okay fine, but more than this, one might wonder: Why isn’t the father with his wife while they’re delivering their baby?
So after we see them in the hospital, the parents are home in their Fifth Avenue apartment, with his parents and her brother Ned over. Our new parents are Brad, played by Sam Rockwell, and Abby, played by Vera Farmiga. Anyway, Joshua is playing the Beethoven piece he’s practicing for his recital, and you’ll notice everyone is completely ignoring him. Okay look, I’m gay, and even >I< know it’s very important to pay attention to the other kids when the new baby comes home. But not these two. Ned, Abby’s brother, who is gay and apparently on Broadway, goes over and sits next to Joshua, playing the piano with him and asking him if he studied the Bartok that they had talked about.
So Abby is going to stay home with the baby while Brad continues to work [for Michael McKean, very effective in a serious role]. You will notice that she continues to pay almost no attention to Joshua. The first night she thinks there’s someone in the baby’s room, but nothing’s going on. The next night Brad wakes up because he hears the baby crying, and when Abby finally comes in, the first thing she says is “What did you do to her?” Abby continues getting more and more upset and less pleasant to those around her. Adding to her unraveling is the construction upstairs, which keeps making strange noises [I was wondering if the piano scales in the next apartment in Rosemary’s Baby was the first use of this device]. Then Joshua is wandering around the house in the middle of the night and pops in the tape of his own baby days, and sees Abby freaking out at Brad, then turning on the tape while alone and repeating “I’m okay, I’m okay, I’m okay…” like fifteen times into the mirror. Now, I wonder how many people who are having nervous breakdowns go around filming their own nervous breakdowns in the mirror? And zooming in for spooky shots that frame just their eyes? The data has not be aggregated yet, but I’m going to guess not that many. But whatever, we say to ourselves, this is the way the movie is presenting itself. We’ll give it a pass—for now. But around this time one could be forgiven for wondering “Oh, so is it really mom who’s crazy? A bit of post-partum depression, perhaps? Like Marie Osmond?”
So then it’s time for Joshua’s recital, in which he is to play the Beethoven piece. Instead he plays “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star,” but even with that he starts moving off into weirdness. Now, you’ll remember that the gay uncle Ned made a reference to Joshua studying Bartok, and it’s fairly clear that Joshua is playing his Bartok-inspired variations on the piece—Brad even observes that Joshua is playing all the notes—but afterward they don’t ask Joshua what happened, or even notice that he played something quite advanced, or ask him if anything is wrong—nothing. But it becomes apparent that this is characterization, because Brad never asks his wife what’s wrong, either. There’s a somewhat harrowing scene where she is obviously very upset and he just keeps on trying to seduce her into sex. We also notice that he is always calling Josh “buddy” and “sport” and “champ,” but never really engaging with what’s going on in his mind or really asking him what’s going on. So Brad just skates over everything and hopes it’ll all work out okay but doesn’t go seeking challenges or to resolve things that aren’t critical problems. This comes to the fore a few scenes later, when Brad’s mother tells him he needs to “grow up.” Okay, so we’ve got some interesting characters here.
SPOILERS > > >
Then Joshua takes the dog for a walk, and soon after he gets back, the dog is dead. Then Abby and Joshua and the baby are home alone and Joshua abruptly wants to play hide and seek, and Abby goes looking upstairs in the construction zone in her bare feet—like an idiot—and soon she’s packed off to an institution. We catch a glimpse of her once more, but she pretty much vanishes from the movie. We have found out that she, and her whole family, have a history of mental illness. Then there’s this whole scene at the Brooklyn Museum where Grandma buys it—and it’s about time someone bought it, because this shit is getting BORING—but by now Brad has begun to suspect Joshua. He has a child psychologist in, and she accuses him of abuse because Joshua’s drawing is a classic example of a drawing by an abused child. Watch how the woman is essentially indicting Brad based on this ONE drawing. We never hear from her again—she didn’t call protective services? So now Dad is quite suspicious, locks up virtually everything in the house, and takes a humorously antagonistic attitude toward his son. Never does he ask “What’s going on?” or “What’s bothering you?” or “Do you want to talk to someone?” or anything.
Now, I had misinterpreted the reviews as saying that some shit was going to start hitting some fan by the end, and I was sitting here around this time saying “WOW this is getting long… and I guess we’re still quite a while from the end?” But then it winds up pretty fast. Joshua is repeating everything his father says [it’s in the trailer], and finally his father snaps and beats the shit out of him right in the middle of Central Park! So Dad’s arrested, and there’s a scene with gay uncle Ned and Joshua at the piano. Ned has a funny little line when he’s composing a song and says “Nobody ever called me daddy,” then says “actually, that’s not true.” Anyway, then Joshua sings a song that indicates that he has always wanted to go live alone with Ned—his whole plot all along is that he wants to go live with his gay uncle!
So you go: Woah! But then you start to think… so the whole thread with him being jealous of his baby sister was just a red herring. The BABY SISTER herself is a red herring. The mother’s mental illness is a red herring. 95% of the movie you just watched has NOTHING TO DO WITH THE POINT OF THE MOVIE! And you start to get annoyed and feel bamboozled.
< < < SPOILERS END
It wasn’t a grievous offense, but it was definitely NOT that good. It was nice to see Rockwell and Farmiga get lead roles. Now I would like to see them get BETTER lead roles. He was very good, and well-suited to the whole “I avoid depth and confrontation” schtick, and she was very good as well, although I can’t imagine this role was very fun, seeing as she’s basically crying and mentally cracking in every scene. The kid was also quite good, and an amusing bit of trivia is that the baby here is his real-life sister. Spooooooky.
The problem is that the movie has no cohesion… as I observed, virtually everything in the movie turns out to have NOTHING to do with what it’s ultimately about, and what it’s ultimately about is given such short shrift… it can only come off as really annoying. And you, the audience, feel like a fool for taking this movie seriously in the first place, because it is just toying with you, trying to raise any little suspense frisson it can, regardless of whether it makes sense. I’m almost inclined to believe that some unrelated party took it and re-edited it after the director and writer finished with it, but no, a lot of it is there in the script and direction, and the responsibility must rest squarely on their shoulders. Oh, and one last thing: it’s really boring.
I really wouldn’t, no matter how much you think “oh, I know it's not great, but I like evil-kid movies.”