Vera Farmiga as Kate Coleman
Peter Sarsgaard as John Coleman
Isabelle Fuhrman as Esther
CCH Pounder as Sister Abigail
Jimmy Bennett as Daniel Coleman
Aryana Engineer as Max Coleman
Margo Martindale as Dr. Browning
Getting a genuinely thrilling suspense film out of Hollywood is about as rare as stumbling over a winning lottery ticket in a drainage ditch. It can actually happen in real life, but you don’t want to count on it.
Which is why it’s such a pleasant surprise when it does happen. I’m not sure if “Orphan” quite fits that bill, but it will do until something better comes along.
Kate (Vera Farmiga) and John (Peter Sarsgaard) are a safely upper middle class family who fall into a tortured downward spiral following the still birth of their third child. In an effort to fill the hole in their lives (and especially to help Kate put herself back together) they decide to adopt a young girl, eventually bringing them to Esther (Isabelle Fuhrman), a Russian orphan who seems oddly perfect for them.
And in Hollywoodland, that’s never a good sign. You’d think the fact that her previous family died in a fire would be a bit of a giveaway.
It’s really Isabelle that makes “Orphan” worth watching. The plot itself is straight out of “The Hand That Rocks the Cradle” or “Single White Female” vain. An outsider comes into our hero(s) worlds, seeming to great benefit at first, but secretly harboring obsessive and destructive desires.
And that’s pretty much what we have here, except that in this case new element in the Coleman’s lives is a child, but a child who acts and reacts in the chilling manner of an adult, and that really does make all the difference. As manipulative as it may be, there is something genuinely chilling about watching a child go through the darker levels of adult behavior. And even better when it bridges the adult and child worlds, as Isabelle worms her way into the life of the Coleman’s youngest child, Max (Aryana Engineer), who is deaf due to Kate’s inattention.
As Isabelle’s darker side comes out, she draws Max (and the Coleman family in general) deeper into her web of manipulation and it works a lot better than it should. There is something genuinely disturbing about two young girls dragging a body into the woods and hiding it.
In fact, the relationship between the two ‘sisters’ is the strongest in the film, partially because Max’s inability to hear or speak forces her to do all her acting through body language. It helps that most of her scenes are with Fuhrman, who is completely convincing even when dealing with the most adult of emotions, most of which she can’t have had much personal experience with yet.
It’s really to director Jaume Collet-Serra’s (“House of Wax”) that he’s gotten such a strong performance out of Fuhrman and made her so convincing. He’s come up with quite a stylish film as well, with generally well-designed suspense sequences, mostly set around the Coleman’s über-chic modernist home.
Like a lot of these kinds of film, “The Good Son” and so forth, it falls a part a bit when the adult’s are around. Which is unfortunate as it’s quite clear that this supposed to be Kate’s story, as she pays for some of her past misdeeds far more than she deserves. Collet-Serra and screenwriters David Johnson and Alex Mace are excellent at describing Kate and John’s marriage at peace, but as soon as murder and suspicion raise their heads it all falls apart. Sarsgaard is particularly wasted as the somewhat oblivious husband.
There are two ways to go about this kind of film; make the audience think the main character is genuinely imagining things, or tip your hand and show everything that’s actually going on. “Orphan” goes for the latter pretty much from the outside, which makes it really difficult to stick with the adults much of the time. The fact is, the kids are just more interesting.
It falls apart at the end as well, suffering from too many climaxes and classic villain-that-won’t-die disease. And the final verbal tag when the killer is defeated really needs to be retired from suspense films. Especially when you start retreading ones from horror movies of just a couple of years ago. It’s so obviously manipulative it can’t help but take you out of the movie. It’s not real and needs to go.
Weak adult characters and lame ending aside, “Orphan” succeeds more often than not, mainly thanks to Fuhrman’s performance and Collet-Serra’s direction. It’s not a fantastic thriller but it’s not bad and often far better than it probably should be.