High-gloss thrillers rarely elicit gales of unintentional laughter. Orphan is so bats*** crazy that it wears you down just enough to accept the lunacy and enjoy the movie for what it is: every parent's worst nightmare, writ large in childish crayon. For more than one reason, adoption advocacy groups can stop worrying. Although it starts off calm and determined, Orphan eventually descends into that weird territory where it might be OK to talk back to the screen.
For the sake of the other patrons in the audience, I don't actually recommend doing so, but it's hard to keep your mouth shut when you see some of the outrageous actions presented on screen. And it's so serious! If every parent frets that one of their children might be a "bad seed," Orphan takes that fear and amplifies it in twisted ways, dramatizing a bad seed gone beyond evil, a character who is gleefully demented and wickedly scheming, far beyond human comprehension in one so little. Yet the opening sequences are so skillfully handled that the film builds up a measure of goodwill, which makes it eminently watchable and keeps it from becoming a complete disaster.
Nearly all of that goodwill is due to the persuasive performances of Vera Farmiga and Peter Sarsgaard. As Kate and John, parents of two young children, they are still grieving the loss of a stillborn daughter. After two years, John is ready to move forward and wants to adopt a child; Kate is less certain, but wants to please her long-suffering husband. Enter Esther, who they little suspect is the latest edition of the prototypical 'demon child from hell.'
Kate and John meet the beguiling Esther (Isabelle Fuhrman) in a Catholic orphanage. They seem to hit it off right away; Esther is polite, demure, well-spoken, and artistic, painting lovely little pictures. Sister Abigail, played by the always welcome CCH Pounder, describes Esther as a bright nine-year-old from Russia whose parents were killed in a tragic fire that the girl barely survived. Three weeks later, Kate and John bring Esther home to meet her new siblings, the quickly resentful Daniel (Jimmy Bennett) and younger sister Max (Aryana Engineer), who is deaf. Just like her parents, Max immediately takes to Esther, trailing around behind her like a tiny shadow.
Proceeding in a sincere, stately manner, director Jaume Collet-Serra (House of Wax) crafts an intimate drama of a family walking on thin ice. Kate's grief over her stillborn child is compounded by a guilty conscience about her alcoholism. Her drinking had serious consequences: she lost a good job and fractured her relationship with John. Several references are also made to a near-tragic incident at their backyard pond, for which she is evidently accountable. Kate has been sober for nearly a year, though remnants of her haunted past remain. She tends to a small memorial of roses dedicated to her lost child Jessica, she struggles with sometimes overpowering urges to drink, and she hasn't yet eased back into sexual intimacy with her husband.
John, on the other hand, earns a comfortable living working from home. He appears to be picture-perfect: kind, loving, and playful with the kids, patient and understanding with his still-fragile wife. Who wouldn't want a daddy like John?
On balance, Esther's arrival appears to be a good thing. The only odd note is her insistence on dressing like a little old lady, adorned in 19th century formal dress, and wearing dark ribbons around her neck and wrists. When one of her new classmates pokes fun at her, Esther shoots daggers with her eyes. Later, when the little darling roughs around with Esther, causing the pages of her precious, ancient Bible to fly into the air, Esther emits a high-pierced scream that's so loud it should have set off every car alarm within a ten-block radius.
Kate and John are quick to minimize Esther's behavior, though, even when her taunting schoolmate ends up "falling" off some playground equipment and breaks a bone. Daniel's complaints are attributed to simple jealousy, and Esther is treated like a little angel. Kate starts giving her piano lessons and Esther's a great big sister to little Max, quickly learning sign language to communicate with her. (The scenes with Max are staged and filmed with lovely, subdued flourishes throughout the movie.) Kate relaxes more and more; it seems that Esther is helping her to heal emotionally.
Kate becomes so relaxed that she and John engage in some late-night, clothing-optional kitchen duty, thinking that everyone else in the house is asleep. That leads to a couple of genuinely humorous scenes, but it's also the beginning of the end of the movie as a serious endeavor.
Up until that point, Orphan is very effective, albeit with the usual degree of frustrating horror / thriller 'fake cheats' -- sudden sounds that turn out to be innocent, punctuated by screeching music cues; deceptive point-of-view tracking shots that, likewise, reveal the point-of-view to be that of the director rather than a character. Those cheap shots, inserted to keep the audience awake, are kept to a minimum until sometime after Kate and John's late-night rendezvous. Thereafter, the pace begins to pick up to match the increasingly ridiculous story.
While the idea of an orphan child with murder in mind may be offensive to some -- especially the "orphan" part of the equation -- the "evil child" is a long and storied cinematic tradition that's been exploited in countless films from The Bad Seed to The Omen to The Good Son and on and on. With that kind of extensive history, there's a powerful temptation to up the ante by providing more shocks than every other similar type of movie ever made.
The screenplay, credited to David Leslie Johnson, with story by Alex Mace, conjures up a novel explanation for Esther's actions, but that, along with every other attempt at over-the-top conduct, simply becomes risible, provoking ever-increasing laughter in reaction to what unfolds. True, some of that could be described as nervous laughter; the violence becomes bloody and gruesome as Esther's anger is unleashed, and laughter is one way to deal with tension. Yet a scene near the end, featuring a tearful John and a sympathetic Esther, must surely go down as one of the queasiest, funniest, and most memorable scenes in "evil child" cinematic history.
With all that said, Orphan proved to be one of the more entertaining movies of the year, though not, I'm afraid, for all of the reasons the filmmakers surely intended.