'Orphan' Is Clever, but Ultimately Pointless
Kathleen Murphy, Special to MSN Movies
One look at the poster for "Orphan" — spotlighting a dead-eyed child sporting a Kazakh-vampire hairstyle and a velvet neck-ribbon that might be all that holds on her head — should be enough to convince anybody with eyes that, "Something is wrong with Esther." But no. In order to jump-start this clever, manipulative and ultimately pointless exercise in psychological horror, the woman (Vera Farmiga) about to adopt the film's bad seed (Isabelle Fuhrman) must reassure Esther (and us) that, "It's OK to be different."
Not too surprising that Farmiga's character, Kate, stands up for being different. A talented composer, she lost her prestigious job at Yale when her drinking got away from her. And one day, while mom was soused, little (deaf) daughter Max (Aryana Engineer) almost drowned in a nearby pond. Clean and sober now, Kate still suffers from the screaming meemies, not least because of a recent pregnancy that ended badly. ("Orphan" opens in paranoid nightmare, a capsule horror flick about giving birth.) Her husband (Peter Sarsgaard), a high-end architect, comes off as affable and superficially supportive, the kind of only occasionally unfaithful fellow who'd sail through an undemanding life and marriage with flying colors.
Despite their losses and fault lines, this couple's insulated by American Dream affluence. Talented, successful, their emotional IQs pumped up with shrink-talk and self-help lore, Kate and John Coleman are what passes for socio-economic aristocracy in America. Isolated in an ultra-modern, hilltop "castle," they and their mostly perfect kids seem self-sufficient, above it all. If the elaborate tree house where their prepubescent son and his friends chortle over skin magazines signifies another locus of upscale pleasure, then the half-frozen pond below the house begins and ends as a black hole where bad things get buried.
The home John has designed reflects his personality: externally attractive but oddly lacking in character and color inside — except for the fertile greenhouse where Kate has grown a white rose out of her stillborn child's ashes. Outside the castle walls, the uninviting weather's always winter.
Shopping for a replacement for their lost princess at a fairy-tale orphanage, the Colemans are unaccountably enchanted by Esther, a Russian-born 9-year-old. Precocious, articulate (with just a hint of an Old World accent) and self-contained, the little girl in old-fashioned pigtails, Little Bo-Peep smocks and velvet neck- and wrist-ribbons seems just the kind of exotic bloom American tourists might unthinkingly bring home from an overseas jaunt, never considering the possibility of blight for home-grown flora and fauna. (Gotta wonder whether Spanish-born director Jaume Collet-Serra isn't amusing himself with a subliminal parable about Fortress America's parochial foreign relations and self-absorbed materialism.)
But never mind, for the moment, the threat of a Venus fly-trap from overseas. Esther's a charmer, learning sign language in a flash so she can chat with adorable little Max, sharing a tear with Kate over that white rose, snuggling up under the covers with John during a scary thunderstorm. But Collet-Serra, whose directorial debut was the remake of "House of Wax" (execrable except for melting Paris Hilton!), methodically works shopworn scare tactics to soften us up for horrors to come: Kate looks at herself in mirrored medicine cabinet, slides opens cabinet-door with a spine-tingling screech, then shuts it so we're jolted by the sight of someone suddenly looming behind her. The camera prowls shakily (if pointlessly) toward someone's vulnerable back as though about to pounce on prey. Knee-jerk stuff, followed by equally familiar tropes such as the affectless Esther appearing literally out of nowhere, in the dark, on stairs, in the kitchen to spy on some impromptu lovemaking.
If you've seen "The Bad Seed," "Omen," "Joshua" (in which Farmiga played an equally fractured mom), Esther's post-adoption behavior will come as no surprise, as the newcomer handles unfriendlies with extreme prejudice, applies pressure to Kate's psychic soft spots, and advances her subtle seduction of daddy. At two-hours-plus, the psychological and physical carnage goes on far too long, especially since Collet-Serra displays all the stylistic originality of a street vendor hawking Gucci knock-offs.
While the third-act surprise twist of "Orphan" must have looked wicked-good on paper, on screen ... not so much. During a single phone call from foreign climes, a previously unknown character simply spews the torrent of information requisite to set in motion the film's climactic walpurgisnacht — and then it's just a matter of watching the blood sport play out predictably.
Grabby performances by Sarsgaard and especially Farmiga (so memorable in Scorsese's "The Departed") help to elevate "Orphan," and Fuhrman delivers requisite evil as the demonic child who systematically destroys the Colemans' house of cards. But it's first-time, mildly deaf actress Engineer, playing speechless Max, who almost convinces you this movie is about something. A Shirley Temple sans tear-jerking cutes, the cherubic 5-year-old witnesses terrifying atrocity with a speaking face, her eyes old with helpless knowledge. Of all of Esther's victims, little Max, already a near-casualty of her mother's alcoholism, projects an authentic sense of living in the real world, where there's no insurance policy against being orphaned or drowning in deep, dark waters.Kathleen Murphy currently reviews films for Seattle's Queen Anne News and writes essays on film for Steadycam magazine. A frequent speaker on film, Murphy has contributed numerous essays to magazines (Film Comment, the Village Voice, Film West, Newsweek-Japan), books ("Best American Movie Writing of 1998," "Women and Cinema," "The Myth of the West") and Web sites (Amazon.com, Cinemania.com, Reel.com). Once upon a time, in another life, she wrote speeches for Bill Clinton, Jack Lemmon, Harrison Ford, Joe Pesci, Robert De Niro, Art Garfunkel and Diana Ross.