*½/**** Image B Sound B Extras D
starring Vera Farmiga, Peter Sarsgaard, Isabelle Fuhrman, CCH Pounder
screenplay by David Leslie Johnson
directed by Jaume Collet-Serra
by Walter Chaw Jaume Collet-Serra's Orphan is a cheap, schlocky, shameless kid-peril flick with an unlikely--cowardly, even--twist and standard resolution. But I'll be damned if it isn't, despite all that, almost worth it just for its nastiness. Alas, in the end, it's not nasty enough. Without a thought in its head, without much understanding of how to earn legitimate frights without maiming (or threatening to maim) adorable children, it joins this year's similarly lost zombie girl-baby flick Grace among end-of-a-cycle, misogynistic shots at the Bad Seed genre. It's the kind of film that's more interesting for the fact of its relationship to other bad-seed flicks post-9/11 (e.g., Japanese redux The Ring and little-seen creeper Soft For Digging) than for anything it does itself. Interesting, too, that it's a relatively big-budget, mainstream picture starring a couple of extremely appealing actors (Peter Sarsgaard as John and Vera Farmiga as his wife, erm, Kate) as the patsies who adopt the titular hellchild, a Russian immigrant named Esther (Isabelle Fuhrman), from one of those autumnal orphanages run by nuns like cuddly Sister Abigail (CCH Pounder). Unfortunately, it's loaded with--there's that word again--cheap jump scares that, at least half the time, are so self-aware as to be parodies of themselves. Post-modernism it ain't, though--post-modernism is smart.
Mommy's metronome is the ticking of her biological clock, which has, evidently, coloured all her pronouncements with hysterical, teary-eyed, flesh-rending recriminations. It's no wonder Daddy doesn't think much of it when Kate, a recovering alcoholic still stunned by the stillbirth of her third baby, starts to doubt Esther's innocence. Reminiscent of Joseph Ruben's unfairly dismissed The Forgotten, in which a mother knows something about her kid but nobody--not even her shrink--believes her, it's reminiscent of being about something in no other way. A shame, because somewhere in here are the seeds of commentary on the culture of foreign adoption, perhaps, or the disintegration of the nuclear family, or, most insidiously, the paranoia surrounding the influx of immigrants into the United States. At the bottom, it's only really interested in pointing guns at deaf six-year-olds, menacing the nards of a thirteen-year-old with a box-cutter, and setting an occupied treehouse on fire.
Farmiga is awesome, Sarsgaard is pleasantly sleepy, Fuhrman is gratifyingly nutso, and little Aryana Engineer, who's hearing-impaired in real life, is a genuine revelation. The parts (including a great ride along icy roads and a delivery-room prologue from Hell) are so exceptional, in fact, that the whole of it seems that much more flaccid and imbecilic. All would still be forgiven, however, if Orphan weren't so committed to honouring every single convention, from the information-giver's untimely demise to the final stalking through a darkened house; despite the guns brought to bear, it's incapable of creating much organic tension. Without purpose, without some anchor to relevance, Orphan is just a contraption designed to make you feel uncomfortable and loses its ability to do that once it's clear it doesn't have the balls to actually do anything lasting to its heroic children. Worst is that when it has Esther slather on the rouge and make a play for her adoptive daddy, it comes on the heels of a revelation that effectively neuters any shock value. Orphan hates professional women, hates eurotrash, is suspicious of imperfect mothers, and punishes, The Hours-like, milquetoast husbands. It's exploitation afraid to offend the middlebrow (a lot like Grace's excoriation of vegans), and if there's any single thing that'll kill horror, it's the desire to be palatable to those who wouldn't be caught dead watching it in the first place.
THE BLU-RAY DISC
Orphan docks on Blu-ray from Warner in a handsome 1.78:1, 1080p transfer that reproduces the film's muted, almost sepia palette with fidelity: those miserable Canadian/Connecticut winters never looked so stark and desolate. What really resonates is a black-light sequence that reveals the hidden nature of Esther's paintings, the fluorescent colours popping against a black background without a whisper of a hint of bleed. The adjoining Dolby 5.1 TrueHD audio is generally quiet, though a few set-pieces--the opening nightmare, a crackling treehouse, the scream of tires on an icy roadway--present with force and volume from every channel.
A featurette, "Mama's Little Devils: Bad Seeds and Evil Children" (15 mins.), purports to provide an overview of evil kids in the cinema, but without any real scholars, what we have is too much time spent on Orphan and then the namedropping of Rosemary's Baby, Village of the Damned, The Omen, The Bad Seed, and The Exorcist. No attempts are made to contextualize any of these films sociologically or in regards to their place in film history, with the assorted yahoos saying stuff like, "Oh, man, you can't talk about evil kids without the name 'Damien!'" or, "The Exorcist broke all the rules!" There's indeed a fulsome, fascinating conversation to be had about the history of stuff like this--1968's Rosemary's Baby and the youngster who eats her mother in Night of the Living Dead, for instance, as vital harbingers for the New American Cinema viz. Bonnie & Clyde. Oh well, at least it's in HD, right? A selection of "Deleted Scenes" (4 mins., in cruddy SD) features an alternate ending one would be hard-pressed to appreciably value over the original finale. The second disc, a DVD, contains a digital copy of Orphan that I successfully downloaded to my computer for future not-watching. Originally published: November 27, 2009.