The “creepy kid” subgenre of horror films has been just about done to death, but thanks largely to a solid cast, Orphan overcomes its own ludicrously slapdash plot and stands as one of the better horror films released in 2009.
The film revolves around John and Kate (played by Peter Sarsgaard and Vera Farmiga, respectively), a married couple with two children. In the film’s grim opening scene, we learn Kate miscarried the couple’s third child. From there we flash forward an indeterminate amount of time and get a few quick scenes to introduce the couple’s kids. Their eldest child Daniel is played by Jimmy Bennett, while their younger daughter is Max, played by Aryana Engineer.
Long story short, the couple decide to adopt, and before you know it, they’re introduced to Esther, a seemingly introverted young girl who charms them immediately. They bring her home and things are peachy for awhile until, of course, it all goes horribly awry, leading to a third act that’s as outlandish as it is violent.
As stated, the cast deserves a lot of credit for keeping this film more or less on the rails. Farmiga’s Kate is clearly damaged goods right from the get-go – haunted by her past and always just one drink away from lapsing back into alcohol addiction. It’s a pretty cliché character, and could’ve been terrible with a lesser actress in the role, but she definitely pulls it off.
The same can be said for Sarsgaard. As John, he’s basically just required to be clueless, but he’s clueless in a way that feels somewhat plausible, and he comes across as a reasonably normal guy who’s in way, way over his head.
The real finds in the cast are the two young girls. First is Isabelle Fuhrmann, who got a lot of praise for her performance as Esther, and rightly so. She dives into the role, alternately grinning and scowling with equal menace, driving a wedge between her foster parents with almost laughable ease. Esther is meant to be from Russia, and Fuhrmann’s accent gets a little ridiculous at times, but it really just adds to the over the top feel of the film. Cheesy dialogue spoken in a bad accent? Sold!
For me though, Aryana Engineer completely steals the show as Max. Engineer is hearing impaired, but she communicates better with her facial expressions and signing than many young actresses do with their voices. And she was only six at the time Orphan was filmed. Here’s hoping she continues on with acting and gives some of the other great young actresses of recent years – like Dakota Fanning or Chloe Moretz – a run for their money.
Ultimately, Engineer’s role in the film only exists because having a hearing impaired character in the story allows the director to orchestrate certain sequences later on. But her performance gives life to what could’ve easily been a very flat, one-dimensional character, so she deserves kudos for that.
From a technical standpoint, everything about the direction of the film feels pretty much like standard horror. It’s got the usual “mirror scare” gags, plus tons of sequences where the music swells and the camera pushes in dramatically to reveal… Absolutely nothing. Director Jaume Collet-Serra never really succeeds at building tension, and at a little over two hours, one can’t help but think his film could’ve used another pass in the editing room. That said, what the film lacks in subtlety, it makes up in violent mayhem. Plus it looks nice, and the shots are well composed, so give cinematographer Jeff Cutter some credit.
Orphan is the kind of movie whose plot falls apart if you stop and think for about two seconds, but it’s stylish and fun and preposterous and the actors do their best to sell it. So check it out if you get a chance.