Orphan Review – When Bad Kids Happen to Good People” width=”560″/>
When I see subtle, gifted actors in schlocky movie duds, I can’t help but wonder why they signed on in the first place. In this instance, I’d like to think Peter Sarsgaard and Vera Farmiga mistook Orphan for a psychological thriller rooted in domestic trauma, rather than a messy hodgepodge of creepy kid cliches.
But as it stands, these terrifically talented actors bravely shoulder the burden of trying to ground a movie that teeters between the howlingly hackneyed (cue the screeching soundtrack and shots of spooky corridors) and the ham-fistedly gory. Lovers of cooing pigeons and kindly nuns, be warned: Expect the worst and you won’t be disappointed.
Orphan puts its bloodstained cards on the table from the opening sequence: Kate Coleman (Farmiga) relives the loss of her third child in a nightmare of looming doctors, diabolical medical instruments and, ultimately, the stillbirth of a ghoulish, gore-streaked baby. Kate and her husband John (Sarsgaard), who already have two children — adolescent Daniel (Jimmy Bennett) and a hearing-impaired younger daughter, Max (an excellent Aryana Engineer) — elect to deal with their grief by adopting a 9-year-old. In Orphan‘s world, there’s no need to trudge through bureaucratic red tape, submit to intrusive interviews and background checks or wait for years to adopt a child from an overseas orphanage. Healthy foundlings, dressed in prim gray pinafores and housed in white Colonial mansions, are there for the picking. Kate and John gravitate towards weird little Esther (Isabelle Fuhrman), a Russian girl who rekindles the hope that this damaged family can indeed welcome a new child into their lives.
Director Jaume Collet-Serra (House of Wax) doesn’t play coy: Viewers are privy to Esther’s murderous glances and fits of rage from the start, which means the only real suspense comes from wondering when the trusting Coleman clan will wake up and smell the lighter fluid. Esther intimidates her new siblings into silence, gives Kate the cold shoulder and cozies up to John, who takes Esther’s side when Kate begins to suspect that Esther isn’t at all what they imagined. Though this family triangle peaks in the movie’s first 45 minutes, the movie takes another hour to get to Esther’s inevitable unmasking and Kate’s subsequent exoneration. It fills most of that time exploring the ways in which a pre-teen can ominously remove sharp household items from a kitchen drawer.
The treachery of children is a compelling theme, explored in works as different as The Bad Seed and Shakespeare’s King Lear. Orphan had the potential to be a startling, thoughtful thriller rooted in dark themes: The unsavory guilt produced by resenting your own children, the stresses of adoption, maternal rage, Oedipal jealousy, and parental favoritism. And it could have done it all with without sacrificing genre demands for pint-size sociopathy and little bloodied hands either! If only its childish id hadn’t thrown a tantrum and gotten its wish for more gore and less insight. The end result cribs shamelessly from movies like The Good Son and the recent Joshua (in which Farmiga stars as a similarly wild-eyed mother), but delivers neither the visceral shocks of the former nor the social commentary of the latter.
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