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Orphan (2009)


As an actor, you have to consider the possibility that your career has jumped the shark once you agree to star in an ‘Evil Child’ movie — you know, that inexplicably long-lived subgenre where the exceedingly creepy kid wreaks lethal havoc on his/her family and surroundings. That thought must have been swirling around in the heads of Vera Farmiga and Peter Sarsgaard, two truly great actors inexplicably found at the center of Orphan, another assembly-line rehash of every other Evil Child film from the last two decades. Their acting alone is enough to raise the bar here slightly, but one still must wonder how they got roped into this at all. Maybe they truly thought this would be the exception to the rule. Or maybe it was the paycheck.

If it means anything — and in dealing with such a consistently awful subgenre, I think it does –Orphan is most certainly not the worst of its kind. It’s moody and atmospheric enough, and the lead actors bring more to the table than the material deserves. There’s also at least an attempt to probe into the characters’ lives, so they are more than just running, screaming, blood-spurting automatons. But enough caveats. This movie is still a ridiculous, unbelievable horror show in which we root for a mature woman to brutally slaughter a little girl. It feels uncomfortable and wrong… and not in a good way.

Farmiga and Sarsgaard play the Colemans, Kate and John, who live happily in their big, picturesque home with their two children. They once had a third, a daughter who was to be named Jessica, but was stillborn. We learn this fact in the film’s opening dream sequence, an exaggerated bloody farce in which a pregnant Kate bleeds profusely and delivers a bloody baby corpse. The film wants us to believe that Kate’s dreams are just that gratuitous, but they’re don’t think her dreams are nearly as gratuitous as the movie they star in. John and Kate (try not to confuse them with reality TV stars Jon and Kate, though apparently their relationship is similarly bloody) both have their share of past sins — he was once a philanderer, she is a recovering alcoholic — but decide to move past their grief over the lost child and adopt an orphaned child.

At the orphanage, the couple meets Esther (Isabelle Fuhrman, quite good in her first showcase role), a nine-year-old originally from Russia who is very smart, with tremendous artistic ability and charm to boot. But come on, we’ve seen the posters with the kid’s ominous mugshot, and we’ve seen the trailers that take great pains to point out that ‘Something’s wrong with Esther,’ so we know the charm offensive ain’t gonna last long. And it doesn’t — soon Esther starts setting fires here, bludgeoning a woman’s head there… typical Evil Child stuff, except it seems a little seedier in this case, since the movie delights in splattering blood, and Esther commits most of her atrocities with the Colemans’ three-year-old, hearing-impaired daughter by her side.

The little tyke does her best to conceal her evil, mainly by making it seem as if former alcoholic Kate is an irresponsible parent who’s back on the sauce. Kate seems to be the only person on the planet who thinks Esther might be capable of such heinous acts, but wouldn’t you be alarmed if you just adopted the most evil-looking kid ever birthed, she spoke in a creepy Russian accent, and then started breaking kids’ ankles? The longsuffering mother dutifully researches various personality disorders while everyone around her — including her husband, whom Sarsgaard plays so well that we really believe he is the world’s biggest douchebag — begins to think she’s unraveling. When Orphan isn’t exploiting the Evil Child angle for all it’s worth — having the kid drop the F-bomb and gleefully wield blunt instruments, etc. — it cops to the protagonist-against-the-world construction, where no matter what the hero or heroine does, he/she always ends up dismissed, or not believed, or forcibly restrained and poked with sedative needles. In this case the heroine is Farmiga, who shouts and cries her butt off in this movie for very little reward. She and Sarsgaard are the real victims of this sinister Orphan, a movie that lulls great actors into adopting it, then systematically tries to kill them off the A-list.

The DVD includes deleted scenes and an (iffy) alternate ending.

Whiter than white.