Warner Bros. Pictures
Release Date: July 24, 2009
Cast: Vera Farmiga, Peter Sarsgaard, Isabelle Fuhrman
By Sean Chavel
If you think that spotting an evil kid in an evil kid movie is commonly far too obvious then check out "Orphan" and you will see… that it is a better and more inspired casting job than usual. As the ads suggest, there’s something wrong with Esther. She’s played by Isabelle Fuhrman who manages to make a Russian accent not just slyly deceptive – you pick up defensive spurn in her voice – but downright spooky. What are good-natured WASPs doing adopting this 9-year old child?
When things start to go wrong, and things do go very wrong, the off guard parents (played by Peter Sarsgaard and Vera Farmiga) are of course going to reach the point where they start probing from where Esther came from (a good Russian doctor makes an entrance in due time). But the hook of the movie is that dad doesn’t get it, and mom is all too knowing that Esther is mean and cruel, two-faced and duplicitous, scheming and conspiring, and perhaps has a fixated Oedipus Complex. Sensibly parceled character development reveals that mom and dad have pained resentment issues with each other and become torn over the guardianship of Esther. They also have a teenage son and a young deaf daughter, the two of them with split feelings over their new stepsister.
Family discussions begin diplomatically before they degenerate into parties taking sides. None of this would work if it wasn’t for the top-class performances by Sarsgaard and Farmiga who put in as much hard effort in this horror mystery as they would for a seasoned director of a high-profile film. Casting Sarsgaard (he was stellar in such films as “Boys Don’t Cry” and “The Center of the World”) could be a stroke of genius – he seems gently easy to tip over and yet he has an unassuming durability that keeps command of his household. But it is really Farmiga (“The Departed”) who is the shrewd and practical strength of the film, believably plucking away at her evil adopted child’s falseness and going into obligatory Mommy Hero mode.
Evil kid movies go as far back as 1956’s awful “The Bad Seed” (don’t believe the TV guide reviews that say it’s a genre classic), and was further popularized by “The Omen” and its sequels, as well as its spawn imitators. “Orphan” follows the same conventional rules as those movies – that’s a nice way of saying clichés – but what makes this one a much better film is its wickedly deft and sly humor. The exceptional direction is by Jaume Collet-Serra who takes maximum advantage of his wintery locations that he uses to evoke cold shivery dread. Look at his previous credit and you will see that Collet-Serra directed “House of Wax.” What can I say? He improved.
Humorless moviegoers will shout out the movie’s plot-layering ridiculousness, but what they might not get is that “Orphan” has an incredibly sneaky time going gleefully over-the-top with a wallop of a conclusion – you might find yourself choking on your own laughter. The movie is certainly too long, but your attention is held. The photography is consistently sharp and enthralling. The actors are beguiling and interesting. And the director keeps you peering along in the background and in the sides of frames for clues and circumspect details. That’s 123-minutes of guilty pleasure fun. Even the borrowed end credits design from “Seven” is guilty pleasure fun.