There’s a twenty-minute stretch towards the end of Orphan that may just knock you out of your seat. Unfortunately it will probably be due to gigantic waves of laughter rolling up from your gut in reaction to what you’re hearing and seeing onscreen. This is probably not the effect the filmmakers were hoping for because of course… Orphan is supposed to be a horror movie. The real shame is that up until that point the movie manages to be a mildly effective shocker.
John (Peter Sarsgaard) and Kate Coleman (Vera Farmiga) are in the market for a new child but are willing to settle for a moderately used one. They already have two kids (three if you count the one fertilizing flowers in the greenhouse), but have decided to adopt an older child in need to add to the Coleman clan. Wanting to move beyond the memory of a recent pregnancy that ended in still-birth they visit an orphanage open house, and in defiance of both common sense and the horror film ‘duh’ factor they pick the creepiest girl they can find. Esther (Isabelle Fuhrman) wears antique dresses and ribbons around her neck and wrists, she avoids the other children, and her previous family died in a house fire. And I already mentioned her name is Esther right? Well just like the movie poster says there’s something wrong with Esther, and soon bad things start happening to good people all around her. Kate seems to be the only one who can see the truth, but will she be able to convince anyone else of the evil behind Esther’s nine-year old eyes before it’s too late?
Orphan is a long movie. At just over two hours it’s probably too long for a horror movie and definitely too long for a mediocre one. The only positive aspect to that length is that it gives the movie time to introduce and explore the characters more naturally than most genre films can afford. The main couple share a handful of severe character flaws that are slowly doled out in the first hour, and they help explain the mistrust and doubts to come. Infidelity, alcoholism, and a past near-tragedy involving their deaf daughter all come into play, and Esther expertly plays the couple against each other with surgical precision. This slow build is refreshing but as Esther’s outbursts escalate the horror movie cliches start flying fast. Mirrors open then close with a loud musical cue to reveal nothing! Or sometimes something! Or sometimes it’s a shower curtain! Or a camera shot that creeps up behind someone! Then there’s the plain idiocy of doctors who keep sedative-filled syringes on-hand at all times, an absurdly strong wine at a very convenient time, a vice-grip strong enough to break an arm but that leaves no mark…
The acting on display is above par for the genre with strong performances from Sarsgaard and Farmiga, but it’s two of the children that truly impress. Fuhrman makes a strong entrance into the creepy-as-hell cinematic kid club. Esther is sickeningly sweet when necessary and an absolute bad ass the rest of the time. Her glares and threats, including one towards a young boy’s “hairless prick” and another aimed at a bullying classmate, will make you cringe with nervous laughter. Aryana Engineer (awesome name!) plays Max, the Coleman’s deaf daughter, and she gives one of the most natural and annoyance-free performances I’ve seen in years from a child actor.
Orphan isn’t a terrible movie… it’s better than The Unborn anyway. It does squander a strong setup though with an increasing amount of camp that culminates with the scenes I spoke of at the very beginning of this review. As one character is hearing the big reveal behind Esther’s attitude problem the other is experiencing it firsthand, and it quickly moves from somewhat disturbing to absolute hilarity in under a minute. There’s no recovering after that as you’ll probably still be laughing as the drawn-out finale works towards the welcome end credits.