Joshua

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Starring Sam Rockwell, Vera Farmiga, and Jacob Kogan. Rated PG. Opens Friday, July 20, at the Ridge

Now here's a certifiable nightmare maker for people with young kids. Anyone who's ever heard (or just imagined) troubling sounds coming from a fuzzy baby monitor or fretted while their fifth-grader traversed a big-city crosswalk will have their nerves seriously jangled by Joshua. It's a wonderfully absorbing shocker for the adult set.

Sam Rockwell stars as Brad Cairn, a happy-go-lucky, hotshot Manhattan broker living the high life while raising nine-year-old Joshua (impressive newcomer Jacob Kogan) and a new baby girl with his postpartum depression-prone wife, Abby (Running Scared's Vera Farmiga). Director George Ratliff--who offered a disturbing glimpse of Christian fundamentalists in his 2001 documentary, Hell House--wastes no time injecting menace into the Cairns' seemingly happy existence. The film opens with Joshua playing soccer in Central Park; seconds later, he nearly meets death on the bumper of a speeding cab.

Everything's hunky-dory in the family's posh Upper East Side apartment until Joshua starts acting particularly weird. (He's pretty odd to begin with: always clad in a suit and tie, like Damien from The Omen.) He tosses his cookies in the living room when the newborn gets all the attention, and he performs a demented version of "Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star" at a recital before fainting and tumbling off the piano stool. But it's the gnawing likelihood that Joshua is somehow responsible for the baby's incessant crying that is most unsettling. Cowriters Ratliff and David Gilbert effectively relay the pain of sleep-deprived, stressed-out parents driven to distraction by an infant's unstoppable wail.

Farmiga is great as the tortured, breast-pumping mom who must deal with the constant squalling, Joshua's increasingly morbid mindset, and a meddling, born-again mother-in-law (Celia Weston). The L Word's Dallas Roberts is spot-on as Abby's sympathetic brother Ned, who's quick to pump his suffering sis with mood-altering drugs. (The scene where a comfortably numbed Abby steps on a wicked shard of glass, then playfully uses the blood to paint her lower legs into "sexy red boots" is particularly engrossing.)

Yet it's Rockwell who steals the show as the gung ho breadwinner whose thriving career is threatened by the repercussions of Joshua's bizarre behaviour. But how did the little demon get this way? Unlike Damien, with Joshua you can't just say that the devil made him do it.