Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Review: Orphan (2009)

123 minutes
Rated R

by Scott Mendelson

Orphan puts so much care into its construction that it's that much more unfortunate when its narrative foundation collapses under its own weight. The film (and it does strive to be a film) is exquisitely shot, wonderfully acted, and imbued with a genuine sense of dread and tension. As a straight-up scare fest, it's quite effective. As a piece of trashy pulp fiction, it struggles with its desire to have three-dimensional characters and dramatic weight versus its urges to give into the tawdry demands of its genre. But come what may, the picture is a brutal horror flick. The film may not reach the lofty ideals that its European pacing and high-toned cast suggests, but it scares, startles, and surprises with ruthless efficiency.

A token amount of plot: Following a stillborn birth of her would-be third child (and the resulting alcoholic breakdown that followed), Kate Coleman (Vera Farmiga) and her husband John (Peter Sarsgaard) have done their best to keep the family together, and they have decided to adopt an older child from a local orphanage. While Kate is introduced to the available children by a kindly nun (CCH Pounder), John comes upon an isolated and oddly independent nine-year old from Russia. Since those who want to give love understandably target those who might need it the most, the family is drawn to this loner and decide to give her a home. Needless to say, young Esther's world-weariness and almost supernatural timing leads to suspicious circumstances and alleged peril for the rest of the Coleman clan. Although John is seemingly oblivious, Kate immediately notices that, to quote the film's marketing hook, 'there is something wrong with Esther'.

That's all you need and that's all you get. What sets this one apart from other mainstream horror films is the quality of the acting and the leisurely pacing. While most horror films hover around the ninety-minute mark, Orphan dares to slowly unfold its narrative in just over two hours. What makes the film work is that it does not fall into the trap of having Kate become a variation on 'no one believes the truth except me'. The story's cruelest trick is that there are probably more people in the story that do see the danger but are prevented from doing anything about it. The second-half skirts the 'idiot plot'. By the third act, John's belief in his adopted daughter's innocence is downright inexplicable. The picture depends on the somewhat reasonable paranoia of those who suspect vs. the plausible fear of those who know but stay silent. If there is a lesson to be taken from Orphan, it is that parents should have long, serious talks with their children about 'good secrets' vs. 'bad secrets'. For the record, the incident that occurs around the hour mark qualifies as a 'bad secret'.

Despite the somewhat contrived storyline, Orphan is a resoundingly jolting scare-fest. The long running time allows for ample character development and director Jaume Collet-Serra makes sure to pay it off for the thrill-seekers. The finale contains both the best plot twist of the year and at least one genuinely cruel story turn. The film doesn't shy away from realistic violence and feels no qualms about putting children in peril. This is easily one of the better 'evil children' movies, even if it pales in comparison to The Children or The Omen. Orphan is an icky and disturbing little movie. If that's your cup of tea (my wife loved it), then by all means dive right in.

Grade: B

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