Brad (Sam Rockwell) and his wife Abby (Vera Farmiga) Cairn have just welcomed their second child into the world, a baby girl they name Lily. But their first child, nine-year-old Joshua (Jacob Kogan), appears to have mixed feelings about the new arrival, only nobody around him is sharp enough to spot this. When he was a baby himself, he was a terrible cryer, which only exacerbated Abby's post-natal depression, so this time around the couple mean to keep those dark moods away. But Joshua might have something to say about that...
This quiet but menacing little horror movie was part of the line of evil kiddie movies reaching back to the grandaddy of them all, The Bad Seed in the fifties. While that is now regarded with more camp indulgence these days than terror, here writer and director George Ratliff opted for a set of chills made out to be as convincing as possible, although there were still moments of black comedy for those with a sense of humour that encompassed supposedly angelic tykes behaving badly. Joshua is our villain you see, and he uses the fact that nobody suspects him to his advantage.
You may not be fully aware of what the boy wanted until the final scene, but it was safe to say there were no real surprises in the gradual revelation of what he was up to. One one hand, the film seemed to be an awful warning about the kind of quiet child who prefers to read than play sport, on the other it was a psychological study of what tricks people play on their own minds when they cannot accept that someone is out to get them - after all, no reasonable person sets out to make others' lives a misery, do they? Ah, or do they? Ratliff capitalised on this unsettling question throughout, working up a neat atmosphere of threat.
This would come across as some terribly hokey thriller if it had not been for some excellent performances, and everyone here pitched their styles just right, especially Sam Rockwell who starts out the friendly, goodnatured husband genuinely concerned for his wife's welfare and ends up sounding like a lunatic to all but his child. Farmiga too, though in a role notably more frazzled from practically five minutes in, was strong in her rising panic and growing despair, a feeling which Ratliff slowly turned up the dial on until a happy ending is looking increasingly out of sight. Kogan was asked to do little but blankly recite his lines, but his inscrutability was undeniably creepy.
The other characters are mainly those who can be swayed by Joshua's machinations, as they cannot bring themselves to believe that what Brad comes to say is true. But this was not a catalogue of mounting hysteria, rather it was more subtle in its horrors, which might explain why the film did not find much of an audience who might be expecting the kind of outrageousness catered for in the likes of Orphan (which also starred Farmiga, obviously having a spot of bother with troublesome children). But if you could adjust to its unhurried pace, and tap into a tone of amusement resembling the grin of the skull beneath the skin, there was much to applaud here, and that final revelation of Joshua's reasons is so petty, so easy to accomplish without the dreadful consequences we have watched, that it's easy to consider it solely as a product of an immature mind. A little too muted for its own good, but a very decent effort nonetheless. Music by Nico Muhly.