Starring Vera Farmiga, Peter Sarsgaard, Isabelle Fuhrman, CCH Pounder, Jimmy Bennett, Aryana Engineer, Margo Martindale, Karel Roden, Rosemary Dunsmore, Jamie Young, Lorry Ayers, Brendan Wall and Genelle Williams.
Screenplay by David Leslie Johnson.
Directed by Jaume Collet-Serra.
Distributed by Warner Brothers Pictures. 123 minutes. Rated R.
Poor Vera Farmiga. This is the second time in just two years that the respected actress has been targeted for murder in her own home by an elementary school student.
In 2007, it was her bad son in the black horror comedy Joshua. Now she has to fight off a devilish and way-spooky-looking Russian adoptee in Orphan.
However, before Farmiga hits a self-help book store to pick up a copy of Homicidal Kids and the Moms Who Love Them, she may want to have a serious chat with her agent. After all she is a much respected actress – hell, she was the only woman who broke into the starring cast of Martin Scorsese’s all-superstar boy’s club Best Picture winner The Departed. She really should be getting better roles than this.
Even Joshua – which was no masterpiece and in many ways had the same basic storyline on display here – was attempting to be a quirky, arty variation of the well-trod Bad Seed horror template. Orphan seems to be taking it more seriously. It is not tongue-in-cheek; it is profoundly serious about being scary. Perhaps that is why it is not nearly as interesting a movie.
Farmiga and Peter Sarsgaard play a very well-off couple (at least judging by their huge home and late-model luxury cars) who live in a rustic but very modern home. I’m not sure where they got all this money. She is a former Yale music professor who seems to be on a pretty permanent sabbatical. He appears to be an architect (I only know this because one scene briefly showed him looking over blueprints) who never seems to actually go to work.
The couple has a laundry list of personal problems tearing them apart. She lost a baby girl in childbirth. He had an affair. She started drinking heavily. Another daughter lost her hearing falling into a frozen lake while mom was supposed to be watching the girl. The husband’s mother doesn’t like or trust his wife. They aren’t having sex much anymore. It’s a home just ripe for an explosion and Esther is the dynamite.
Esther is a nine-year-old Russian girl whom they adopt – apparently as a way to deal with the death of their baby. They have apparently been working towards this decision for quite some time, so you would expect that when they finally get to the local Home for Children they would pick very carefully who they want to add to their little family and to be sister to their young son and even younger and adorable handicapped daughter.
Instead, out of an entire orphanage of smiling, laughing, happy children, this couple decides to bring home the one child who dresses like a school marm from the 1800s, has no friends and cold, dead, black eyes. Even the nun in charge of the orphanage acknowledges that she is a special, somewhat anti-social child who needs extra care, but that doesn’t scare the couple off at all.
If you’ve ever seen the 50s horror classic The Bad Seed – or any of the films that have followed in its footsteps like The Omen, The Good Son or the aforementioned Joshua – you know what is coming. At first, Esther seems like a sweet but slightly offbeat little girl, but quickly her behavior becomes more and more disturbed – killing small animals, hurting local children who anger her, threatening her brother with a box cutter and eventually involving her new little sister in murder.
In fact, this film goes way over the line with several scenes in which small children are tormented and forced to experience or witness some truly horrific crimes, giving the film a sleazy air of desperation and exploitation.
It doesn’t make much sense as a story. Would an orphanage send a small child home with a new family without knowing the adoptee’s background? Would the couple also not bother to find out where she is from? For that matter wouldn’t the orphanage do a little more research on the family? Why does dad have so much trouble believing his wife over a little girl he barely knows?
Then a late plot twist explaining at least some of Esther’s past is not particularly surprising and at the same feels like a complete and utter cheat.
Beyond the wasting of Farmiga, actor Sarsgaard and terrific character actresses Margo Martindale and CCH Pounder – who have nothing supporting roles as the family’s psychiatrist and the mother superior at the orphanage – are way too smart as actors to be playing such truly stupid characters.
Isabelle Fuhrman is more menacing as the title character (she gives the evil eye with great panache) than the film really ever has the takes full advantage of – instead treading in clichéd plotting and some truly unbelievable twists and turns.
Orphan does have a few legit scares over its surprisingly long two-hour running time, but mostly what the film makes you feel is not fear so much as incredulity.
Jay S. Jacobs
Copyright ©2009 PopEntertainment.com. All rights reserved. Posted: October 23, 2009.