Orphan (United States, 2009)

July 24, 2009
A movie review by James Berardinelli
Orphan Poster

Putting aside a needlessly grotesque dream sequence that opens the movie, Orphan looks for a few fleeting moments like it might be a clever psychological thriller - the kind in which the audience is never quite sure whether the events on screen are happening as they're shown or whether they are being distorted through the perception of an unreliable narrator. Sadly, the hope for something Hitchcockian fades quickly. The first indications that we're not in the hands of a competent storyteller arrive with several early, unnecessary "boo!" moments. Well-placed, these sudden jolts can be effective, but is Peter Sarsgaard's face in a mirror worth one? The way they're used in Orphan is indicative of desperation, and they're one of the least evident problems with a screenplay that gets more stupid with every passing moment. One senses an inverse relationship between I.Q. and running length, and this is a long movie.

There's also a squeamish factor at work. It has nothing to do with seeing a bird flattened by a brick or seeing a girl place her arm in a vice and snap the bone. Rather, it has to do with issues of child-on-child violence and pedophilia that the screenplay skirts. In the end, there's a "reason" that's supposed to defuse arguments about this, but it feels more like a cop-out - a way that the movie can have its rancid cake and eat it, too. Sure, anything is game in a movie if there's a reason for it, but in Orphan, it seems like the reason is gratuitous titillation.

Orphan is being marketed as a horror movie, but that's misdirection. It's more of a standard thriller in the "evil amongst us" mode, about a group of people who inadvertently admit a psychopath into their midst. Think The Hand that Rocks the Cradle, except this time the wacko is a little girl instead of a nanny. The premise alone is enough to raise concerns but the smarmy, indelicate manner in which director Jaume Collet-Sera handles the material makes Orphan difficult to sit through. It would have helped, I suppose, if it wasn't so interminable or if the screenplay had shown a scintilla of intelligence. I guess the nicest thing I can say about it is that there are some competent performances and Collet-Sera does a decent job of establishing atmosphere. But that's fresh paint on a termite-infested wall.

The story, which has been understandably denounced by family service organizations around the country, involves loving parents adopting a child who turns out to be a homicidal lunatic - not exactly an advertisement for adoption. The parents are Kate and John Coleman (Vera Farmiga and Peter Sarsgaard), who are looking for a third child in the wake of the stillborn death of a daughter. Kate has a history of problems with alcohol abuse, but those appear to be behind her. The couple's deaf daughter, Max (Aryana Engineer), is eager for a sister, while their son, Daniel (Jimmy Bennett), is less enthusiastic. Kate and John visit an orphanage and fall in love with Esther (Isabelle Fuhrman), a bright, articulate, and polite nine-year old. At first, she seems to be a wonderful addition to the family, learning sign language to communicate with Max, sharing Kate's love of music, and bonding with John. But, when she's picked on at school, a darker aspect begins to emerge, and bad things start happening.

The acting by Farmiga and Fuhrman is respectable - these two could probably have done something interesting with their characters had the screenplay afforded them the latitude. Unfortunately, both must engage in all sorts of bizarre and unfathomable behavior for no reason other than the need to move the plot in a certain direction. Sarsgaard, who specializes in low-key performances, remains largely in the background until late in the movie.

Orphan takes enough liberties with logic to strain credulity from its early moments. While there's a poignancy in the way Kate's tragic recent history is laid out, it doesn't take long for the movie to cash in whatever goodwill it earns from the early melodrama. The manner in which the adoption occurs - which has more in common with the acquisition of a hamster than a child - makes one wonder in what alternate reality this story is transpiring. Then, after briefly toying with some ambiguity regarding Esther (is she really psycho or just misunderstood?), Orphan makes it clear that this girl is one hell of a bad seed. From that point, the screenplay follows the well-trodden path one expects from thriller of this sort with the twist that certain plot elements require extreme stupidity on the part of certain characters and an unattainable level of suspension of disbelief from an audience. The "secret" that has been referenced in ads makes one wonder who thinks this stuff up. No, Esther is not a vampire, but the truth is equally absurd.

Movies like this are supposed to afford viewers an opportunity to undergo a vicarious thrill - that of seeing good ultimately triumph over insidious evil. In Orphan, everything is so tainted and ugly that one feels almost in need of a shower when it's all over. And, although the picture concludes with the expected kick-ass one-liner, it feels hollow and pointless. It would be harder to find a more dark and joyless thriller on the market than this one.

Orphan (United States, 2009)

Run Time: 2:04
U.S. Release Date: 2009-07-24
MPAA Rating: "R" (Violence, Profanity, Sexual Situations)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1