Reviewed by Maitland McDonagh

Texas-born documentarian George Ratliff's (HELL HOUSE) fiction debut is a disappointing pastiche of THE BAD SEED (1956) and THE GOOD SON (1993) that produces a painfully slow psychological thriller about upper-middle-class parenting anxiety.

Brad and Abby Cairn (Sam Rockwell, Vera Farmiga) appear to have the perfect life: a brilliant, artistic 9-year-old son, Joshua (Jacob Kogan); a rambling West Side apartment overlooking Central Park; financial security conferred by Brad's Wall Street success; loving if slightly overbearing in-laws (Celia Weston, Tom Bloom); and a cute mutt. True, prim, blank-faced little Joshua has no friends and seems closer to Abby's brother, musical-theater composer Ned (Dallas Roberts), than to his own parents. But surely that's just because they both love music — piano prodigy Joshua can play the hell out of Hungarian composer Gyorgy Ligeti's notoriously challenging "Musica Ricercata II." And then Abby comes home with their new baby, Lily, and everything goes to hell. Lily screams incessantly, driving high-strung Abby to the brink of a nervous breakdown and leaving Brad so distracted and sleep-deprived that his work begins to suffer. There's constant construction noise from the apartment renovation upstairs. The family dog dies suddenly. Sam's mom moves in to ease the strain on Abby, but her relentless cheerfulness and ever-so-faintly condescending solicitousness only fray Abby's nerves further. As the Cairn family's flawless facade comes tumbling down, Abby becomes convinced that Joshua is behind everything. But how — and why — could a 9-year-old orchestrate such mayhem?

Ratliff and coscreenwriter David Gilbert are clearly aiming for the highbrow suspense market rather than the down-and-dirty horror crowd, but their script's obviousness strips the story of suspense and turns it into a tedious slog to a predestined end. It's clear from the first scene that there's plenty wrong with the unsubtly named Cairn family: Abby is a brittle shrew even before Lily starts her marathon crying jags, Sam's simple, Bible-thumping parents are clearly uncomfortable with their citified Jewish daughter-in-law and her gay brother, Brad tries too hard to please everyone and Joshua is a manipulative little weirdo — one look at him disemboweling his teddy bear so he can practice Egyptian mummification rites makes that clear. But if their underlying theme is that self-involved modern parents breed monsters without realizing it, then the Cairns are not nearly selfish and overindulgent enough to deserve what they reap. If the intended message is that bad seeds sprout spontaneously among us, then they spend too much time dwelling on the Cairns' faults. Rockwell and Roberts deliver strong performances — Farmiga is too overwrought too early, though her breakdown is thoroughly convincing — but they can't fire up a story that is, beneath its pretenses, a formulaic thriller too in love with its own intelligence to bother with the lowbrow business of being scary.