Orphan – 2009

Director Jaume Collet-Serra
Screenplay David Leslie Johnson
Starring Vera Farmiga, Peter Sarsgaard, Isabelle Fuhrman, C. C. H. Pounder, Jimmy Bennett, Margo Martindale, Karel Roden, Aryana Engineer

When I heard they were actually making a prequel to the movie, Orphan, I wondered whether it was this movie, or The Orphanage that I had seen previously. Turns out I had watched neither. I had bought the latter film, produced by Del Toro and directed by his friend J.A. Barona and just forgot about it.

I rented Collet-Serra’s film and watched it with my daughter and her friend last night. It was a little on the intense side for them, mainly because it seemed pretty real. There are no ghosts and supernatural powers. Just a little person looking for her place in an American family trying hard to get past a late term death of their third child. The loss of the child is just one of many things wrong with this family. Adopting Esther turns out to be the straw that breaks the back of this camel.

Esther (Fuhrman) is the lone survivor of a house fire that killed her original adoptive American family. She is in an orphanage when the Kate and John Coleman (Farmiga and Sarsgaard) come to visit. She is on her own, away from the other children. She is painting and converses in a much more mature manner than the other children. Both parents are smitten and they bring her home. The younger mute child Max (Engineer) is taken by Esther too. Danny (Bennett) is not won over. It doesn’t matter. Everyone will have the same view of Esther in the end.

It doesn’t take long for things to go wrong. First, a bully at school is thrown from a playground toy. Max witnesses the event, and defends her new sister. This first event seems more of a gesture of solidarity, but the knowledge of her complicity encourages Esther to use Max in order to further her schemes.

There is nothing plot-wise in the film Orphan that will surprise the viewer. Every even is telegraphed well in advance. If you have something that represents the living spirit of your stillborn child in act one, expect it to be damaged at the start of act three.

The shocks are there, however. First of all, the brutality is almost too hard to watch. What this little human does to other living things is very brutal. For Esther, it’s logical, as well. If something stands in the way of her Point A while she is on her way to Point B, it will be handled with extreme prejudice. When the final secret is revealed (and it is a pretty good one), it all makes more sense.

Fuhrman is excellent as the creepy, well-dressed child of the Eastern Bloc. She does not suffer fools. She makes them suffer. She is always where she needs to be, like she’s been at the game for way longer than anyone expects. Her performance would be better if she had better adversaries. Or just more of them.

Farmiga’s Kate, recovering from a bout with alcoholism, is the first one to get an idea. Once she gets rolling, John all of a sudden decides that not any of her suspicions can be right. It makes for a monotonous middle third of the film when we know where the film has to go and there is nothing in the world, not even luck, that can change it.

Engineer’s Max is an incredibly powerful and sympathetic character. She is forced to live in her head, to the point where it’s unbearable at times knowing how much she is suffering. Many times the viewer is drawn to her character and her peril is the lynch pin to the whole film.

Collet-Serra has an eye for a well framed shot here and there. We get the absolute creeps from Esther’s relentless mowing through one character after the other, innocent or not, knowing what it is she ultimately has in mind. Still, there is not enough here for more than a mild recommendation.

A film like Orphan needs to have more than one real obstacle for the malevolent force to wend through. There needs to be either some sort of greater metaphor for society (this is not) or some actual thinking counterparts. If not, it just becomes a frustrating example of how to tell a story everyone has seen before and will likely see again.

(*** out of *****)

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