Little Dieter, Meet Joshua 

What'll it be, the determined survivalist or the Mean Widdle Kid?

The jungle has been very good to Werner Herzog. Some of the veteran German filmmaker's most memorable movies — Aguirre, Wrath of God; Fitzcarraldo; The White Diamond — have been set in impenetrable tropical hells where men go mad, but Herzog has never shown us a jungle as menacing as the one in Rescue Dawn, a green, unpredictable canopy of struggle in the mountains of Laos. How US Navy pilot Dieter Dengler (played by Christian Bale) found himself stranded there is such a good tale, writer-director Herzog decided to tell it twice.

Herzog's 1997 documentary Little Dieter Needs to Fly told the true story of Dengler, a German-born immigrant to the United States who, in 1966, flew a top-secret bombing mission over Vietnam and Laos. He was shot down, imprisoned, and tortured, but escaped and made his way through the jungle to safety. Rescue Dawn elaborates on the story by making it a narrative, scrupulously shot on location amid the hill tribes of up-country Thailand, standing in for neighboring Laos. Dengler, who died in 2001, was one of those singular people, much like Aguirre the crazed conquistador, who had a fierce will not only to survive but to dominate. As Herzog observed: "Death did not want him."

Actor Bale could give Klaus Kinski a run for his money as the captured Dengler, brutalized by the Pathet Lao, starved in the camp, scrambling through the mud and the leeches and the stifling indifference of the forest, yet with focused defiance in his eyes, even when he's hallucinating. With his hyperalert expression and deadly resourcefulness, Bale's Dengler isn't all that different from the stone-cold loners he played in American Psycho or The Machinist, in which he dropped weight even more drastically. Dieter and his fellow campers — exhausted Duane (Steve Zahn) and nutsy Gene (Jeremy Davies, the cowardly Private Upham from Saving Private Ryan) — suffer the same sorts of discomfort we've seen in countless jungle POW movies, but Herzog, always a stickler, deserves special credit for authenticity. When he goes into the bush, he goes all the way. This is a war movie you can smell as well as see and hear.

Somehow, despite its exciting realism and one of Bale's more convincing performances, Rescue Dawn fails to develop the dramatic conclusion it deserves. The shipboard welcoming finale is not enough after all Dieter has been through. But it will have to do. The payoff of Rescue Dawn is in Dieter's trek through the lush riot of threatening vegetation Herzog once described as possessing "the harmony of overwhelming and collective murder."

The jungle of writer-director George Ratliff's eerie drama Joshua is of a different sort: a well-fed, upper-middle-class existence in a genteel condo overlooking New York's Central Park, where the eponymous nine-year-old boy picks his way through the wreckage of his nuclear family like an explorer. A Mean Widdle Kid explorer obsessed with mummification, that is. Juvie actor Jacob Kogan invests piano prodigy Joshua with the requisite unsettling gaze (say, he isn't related to the American Psycho, is he?) that drives his yuppie parents Sam Rockwell and Vera Farmiga around the bend, but thanks to co-writers Ratliff (he directed Hell House, a documentary on an American Christian "celebration" of Halloween) and David Gilbert's suspenseful scene-setting, we tend to pick up the clues about the kid's twisted intentions a minute late, until it's finally too late altogether. He commits most of his dirty deeds offscreen.

Summertime is genre time, and there's no genre quite as emotionally loaded as the Mean Widdle Kid film. You can read all kinds of tenuous meaning into stories about evil youngsters, but Joshua's simple plan, which mostly works, is to keep us off-balance. Joshua doesn't poison anyone. He doesn't see dead people or become possessed by demons. Yet everything about him is wrong, from the way he purposely botches his school piano recital to the way he manipulates his stressed mother and infant sister. And then there's the even more disturbing subplot involving his "elegant" Uncle Ned (Dallas Roberts).

When we're finally left holding a handful of air at the end of Joshua, it might be instructive to view it as a relatively sophisticated bit of counter-programming against the latest Harry Potter. Despite the fact that he prefers Alice's Adventures in Wonderland to dodgeball, Joshua is the anti-Harry.

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