Thanks for the Use of the Hall - Archive

This archive contains posts from May 2007 to November 2008. More recent posts are at: http://sallitt.blogspot.com

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Location: New York, New York, United States

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Joshua

There's no doubt that George Ratliff, the director and co-writer of Joshua, has a distinctive and exciting sensibility, and I'm looking forward to his future work. I could quibble with his formal instincts, which I don't find impeccable; but his sense of characterization is extraordinary, and he creates a satisfying psychological model of family life that can be picked up and looked at from any angle. Perhaps he and co-writer David Gilbert started with a script problem: why might parents have difficulty loving their child? Their first step could have been to create a plausible problem child: brilliant, weirdly inexpressive, devoid of spontaneity, always watching. Layer on the parents' issues: the father is an easy-going jock with a devilish streak, by nature an antagonist to the uptight child, forced to mouth ineffective parent-like homilies and to keep his aversion to himself. The mother is edgy, wired, fundamentally unnurturing but driven to succeed in the maternal role. And the child cried a lot as an infant.... Then move on to the supporting family members: the jock's parents are middle America and fiercely Christian, and yet are needed to take up the parenting slack created by the mom's psychological fragility. But the jock is a lapsed Christian, and his wife is a Jew, with a very gay brother. The child's spiritual life therefore becomes a battleground. The mom's brother, seemingly the most disposible character, connects to the weave in ways that become increasingly important: not only is he the mom's best support system, but he is also a musician, and the child is a gifted pianist. Ratliff and Gilbert never betray any of the premises of this complicated family arrangement, and in fact they elaborate the structure in satisfying ways as the film progresses, whereas many commercial filmmakers helplessly jettison characterization when the plot comes calling.

Joshua is not just a character drama, however: it is a suspense film. After a strong first hour, the suspense format becomes dominant in the last forty-five minutes; and, though the characters remain more or less coherent, the movie's back somehow breaks anyway.

I think that Ratliff and Gilbert overestimate the flexibility of genre. Plot comes with a lot of artistic concomitants, and the plot mandated by the suspense genre - mysterious child becomes a mysterious and powerful threat - comes with an identification structure that is at odds with the shifting dimensionality of the character web. In its final movement, Joshua necessarily becomes a movie about the fear and distrust that parents might feel for a child, and necessarily throws us into a position of identification with the beleaguered parents: the multiple perspectives of the first section shrink to a single perspective. (And even that perspective becomes suspect as the child's powers grow more superhuman, in accordance with genre demands.) It's not as if we lose the ability to study the parents' foibles, nor that we lose our suspicion that the stunted child is somehow the most sensitive member of the family. It's just that those ideas can find no expression via the plot, and therefore are overwhelmed by other, plot-amplified perspectives.

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