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'Orphan' Movie Review

About.com Rating 4 Star Rating
User Rating 2 Star Rating (1 Review)

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Orphan movie poster
© Warner Bros.
Once a decade, Hollywood seems to unleash a major theatrical "evil child" movie. The '50s had The Bad Seed, the '60s had Village of the Damned, the '70s The Omen, the '80s Children of the Corn and the '90s The Good Son. While the first decade of the 21st century has had The Ring, it's taken until 2009 for a traditional (non-ghost) killer kid flick to receive a wide release. Orphan, however, was well worth the wait, its instant guilty-pleasure appeal placing it squarely in the pantheon of evil kid pics.

The Plot

John (Peter Sarsgaard) and Kate (Vera Farmiga) Coleman are a successful thirty-something couple -- he an architect and she a composer -- with two kids and a huge wooded home. All is not rosy in the marriage, however: Kate is a recovering alcoholic, John has a history of infidelity and most recently, they suffered a miscarriage of their unborn daughter. In an attempt to fill the void in their lives, the couple decides to adopt.

At the orphanage, they stumble upon Esther (Isabelle Fuhrman), a nine-year-old girl who separates herself from the pack, refusing to take part in the dog-and-pony show for potential parents. Intrigued by her maturity, intelligence, charm and talent at painting, they adopt her, taking her home three weeks later.

Little is known about Esther other than she's Russian and her parents died in a fire. She's polite and clever, though, and despite an odd penchant for outdated "Little Bo Peep" clothing, she appears to be the perfect child. She takes John and Kate's daughter, Max (Aryana Engineer), under her wing, quickly learning sign language to communicate with the younger, hearing-impaired girl. Older son Daniel (Jimmy Bennett), however, isn't so quick to warm up to his new sister (the clothing doesn't help) and refuses to stand up for her when she's bullied at school.

Vera Farmiga, Isabelle Fuhrman and Peter Sarsgaard in 'Orphan'.

Vera Farmiga, Isabelle Fuhrman and Peter Sarsgaard in 'Orphan'.

© Warner Bros.
It turns out that Daniel's instincts are correct. As the film's tagline states, "There's something wrong with Esther." Max and Daniel notice flashes of darkness in her demeanor, as mysterious "accidents" seem to befall anyone who crosses her, but by the time Kate begins to suspect something, Esther has sufficiently threatened the kids into silence. Kate's fears grow, however, although her efforts to thwart her adoptive daughter are hampered by John's refusal to believe that a child could be so evil. It's up to Kate, then, to stop Esther's wicked ways without painting herself as the evil one.

The End Result

Cinematically, Orphan offers nothing new; it follows the standard "killer kid movie" format (playing much like Omen IV), from the child's outward cordiality to the ramp-up of sinister incidents that follow her to the Omen-style motherly suspicions that are discounted by the doting dad. Unoriginality aside, though, this is a perfect summer film -- brainless, shallow, manipulative fun. Unlike 2007's limited-release evil kid pic Joshua, Orphan doesn't take itself too seriously. It doesn't aspire to be high art, convey a deep message or be anything but a breezy popcorn flick.

With that aim in mind, Orphan is a rousing success that just might have you pumping your fist and cheering like you're watching Monday Night Football. Admittedly, the movie is shameless, pushing emotional buttons designed to drag you in. I mean, how can you not feel a darkly humorous empathy for the tiny, adorable Max, deaf and cowering in the shadow of a homicidal Esther, afraid to close her eyes when she sleeps? It's like watching a kitten shoved into a cage with a pit bull.

After a slow start -- including a grisly, tasteless opening -- the movie settles into a devilishly involving groove once Esther's dark side emerges. We know what to expect, and yet the well-drawn characters keep things from becoming stale. With her striking, retro look and cold sociopathic demeanor, Esther is a horror icon in the making, and Fuhrman's performance -- from her Russian accent to her sneaky duplicity -- is pitch perfect.

Isabelle Fuhrman in 'Orphan'.

Isabelle Fuhrman in 'Orphan'.

© Warner Bros.
Spanish director Jaume Collet-Serra, who made his American debut with 2005's House of Wax remake, brings to Orphan a similarly edgy artistry -- perhaps too edgy for the material, frankly, with unnecessary shaky cameras and blur effects that add little of substance. He tries a bit too hard to thrill, throwing in several cheap "boo" scares to create a level of tension that's already there. Through most of the film, though, he stays out of the way, occasionally emerging to play up the campy horror potential -- cue the dark and stormy night -- and generally delivers genuine thrills.

Plot-wise, you have to overlook some jumps in logic and the fact that John might be the most oblivious father in cinematic history, but such is the nature of this sort of film. Citizen Kane this ain't. Active thought isn't necessary and might actually detract from your entertainment. Esther's big "secret," for instance, is fairly predictable given a little thought, but the gimmickry of a twist ending isn't the reason to see Orphan; it's the scrumptiously evil journey up to that point that makes for such a good time.

User Reviews

Reviews for this section have been closed.

 2 out of 5
Why Does Suspension of Disbelief Have to Go to 11?, Member jacefreely

""Orphan"" has all the makings of a fun little flick that I might have seen, as a kid, at a now-defunct venue called a drive-in movie theater (I've thought for years now that a million-dollar idea would be to somehow revive the drive-in). Unfortunately, it does what so many movies do and have done for ages, which is to push the suspension of disbelief to the point where I frankly feel my intelligence is being insulted. I mean, come on, the dad in this movie is like some kind of autistic optimist, standing up for his clearly psychopathic adopted daughter to an extent that's just absurd. And all the ""Fatal Attraction"" cliches, like the villain getting up after being beaten, stabbed, set on fire, crushed with a steamroller, dropped into an erupting volcano...okay I'm kidding, but you get the point. Just once I'd like to be scared without being subjected to rehashes of theatrical gimmicks that were lame 20 years ago. ""Let the Right One In"" is one example of a truly original and smart horror film I've seen recently, and it's American remake is not bad either. And if the psycho demon child genre is your bag, I'd check out ""Case 39."" Much better than ""Orphan,"" scarier and more realistic. I'd like to endorse George Romero's zombie movies, but the last few have been frankly stale and kind of boring. Is it that hard to come up with a new twist on the whole zombie genre? Does there always have to be a mad scientist or an out-of-control group of renegade soldiers? My whole point here is that I don't see any reason why a horror or sci fi film has to be retardedly unrealistic. I'd like to see one film that follows this methodology: if a person or group of people was in fact thrust in to said situation - psychopathic orphan, zombie plague, girlfriend possessed by demons - why can't their behavior be believable? Why can't the writer say ""how would real human beings in this situation actually behave?"" Hollywood's track record on this account is miserable, to which ""Orphan"" unfortunately attests. But I watched it to the end. And I think I might even have been eating popcorn.

4 out of 5 people found this helpful.

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