Now in theaters
Peter Sarsgaard as John
Vera Farmiga as Kate
Isabelle Fuhrman as Esther
Directed by Jaume Collet-Serra
Orphan is almost a good movie. A respectable genre entry, it could have been much more. Watching it is a frustrating experience because there are so many effective moments, and nearly every single one is undermined by a nonsensically stupid one. A totally outlandish, awesomely preposterous conclusion tries to save it, but the movie just refuses to end and winds up being really stupid again.
At the very least this is probably Dark Castle’s best effort to date. The cast is solid and the producing credits are impressive (Leonardo DiCaprio and Susan Downey join Joel Silver). The locations are also excellent. Canada, standing in for Connecticut, is imposingly chilly. The house at the center of the action is stunning as well.
For a significant chunk of its excessive running time, Orphan is as routine as the trailer and plot outline suggest. If you have seen The Bad Seed or The Omen or Godsend or The Good Son, you get the idea and will not be surprised by anything that transpires. A seemingly happy and wealthy family, led by John (Peter Sarsgaard) and Kate (Vera Farmiga), decides to adopt a child. Essentially they are looking to replace the daughter they lost not so long ago. They pay a visit to an orphanage and eventually decide on Esther (Isabelle Fuhrman), a nine year-old from Russia who becomes the family’s third child. John and Kate already have a son and daughter.
The audience knows right away that all is not right with Esther. The ways in which the characters figure out her true nature are nothing new. Her past is littered with accidents and coincidences. She plays one parent off of the other. She manipulates her siblings. It is all highly predictable. What keeps Orphan watchable then are the aforementioned locations, the excellent performances and director Jaume Collet-Serra’s sly directing.
Farmiga, who merely two years ago in Joshua played a mother with a demented nine year-old son, is superb as yet another movie mom whose child is nuts. Equally good is Fuhrman, who is exceptionally creepy and convincing as troubled Esther. As for Collet-Serra, this is a major improvement when compared to 2005’s House of Wax. He displays an acute awareness of genre clichÃ©s, especially when it comes to cheap scares and ominous music. He toys with viewers and astutely employs these clichÃ©s on numerous occasions. Now if only he can find a way to trim the running time of his films. His previous genre entry also suffers from excessive length.
Another asset is the fairly credible marriage depicted. John and Kate make a believable couple and there are unexpected layers to their relationship. Each is more complicated than they initially appear. This is a sympathetic family that Esther invades. We actually care about what happens to them.
If only it didn’t all become so mind-numbingly stupid. Of course John doesn’t believe Kate. At first this isn’t an issue, but gradually his disbelief defies all logic and reason. He ignores compelling evidence and appears to believe that his wife is a brain-dead, abusive moron. This doesn’t mesh with the previous depiction of their marriage. Without giving away too much, one of the genre’s most enduring clichÃ©s rears its ugly head during the grand finale, seriously deflating what had been a nifty and twisted ending. It feels over three or four times before the credits finally roll.
Orphan is a case of close but not quite. It is a polished, well-made film with excellent performances and direction. If only the screenplay had been of equal quality. Viewers are asked to suspend disbelief too often and it doesn’t do enough to distinguish itself from other deranged kid flicks. It will make a worthy rental in the not too distant future, but there’s no need to rush out and see it.