Friday, August 7, 2009

Movie Review: Orphan

Orphan ***
Directed By:
Jaume Collet-Serra.
Written By: David Johnson.
Starring: Vera Farmiga (Kate Coleman), Peter Sarsgaard (John Coleman), Isabelle Fuhrman (Esther), CCH Pounder (Sister Abigail), Jimmy Bennett (Daniel Coleman), Margo Martindale (Dr. Browning), Karel Roden (Dr. Värava), Aryana Engineer (Max Coleman).

I cannot remember the last movie child that was as creepy as Esther (Isabelle Fuhrman) is in Orphan. Not even the title character in Joshua, the best creepy child movie of the decade, is as downright scary as Esther. (In Joshua’s defense at least a part of this is because that film was more ambigious about just how evil Joshua was, if at all). Even in her first scene in the film, where she is all innocence and light, there seems to be something missing in Esther that the rest of us have.

Esther is the film’s most complex and fascinating character, but she is hardly the only interesting one. Kate (Vera Farmiga) is a woman who probably should not have been allowed to adopt Esther in the first place. She is a recovering alcoholic with less than a year sober, still reeling for the death of one of her daughters at birth, and an accident that almost killed another of her kids. But she and her husband John (Peter Sarsgaard) have lots of money, so that probably helped to smooth the way.

So when Kate and John bring Esther home, they think that she will complete their family. And for a while things seem to go well, but soon Kate starts to think that there is some wrong with Esther. When she is around John, she is sweet and innocent, but when John is not around; Esther can be less than perfect. There is nothing that Kate can pin on her, but just always seems to be around when bad things happen. Farmiga, who essentially played this same role in Joshua, does a fine job here again. As always, Sarsgaard brings a degree of complexity that often seems to be missing in roles like his.

But it is Fuhrman who is really outstanding. Many child actors overdo a role like this, but Fuhrman perfectly captures her psychopath of a character. She is very convincing, both when she lies, and when she lets her mask down and allows us to see the real person underneath. She is great in the film - one of the best child actors I have seen in years.

The movie that surrounds these performances is predictable and a little sloppy near the end, where it devolves into a series of frantic chases and fights scenes, and of course the killer who keeps coming back to life long past the point when a normal person would have died. But director Jaume Collet-Serra is talented, and the visual look of the film is dark, but visually alive. The scenes involving the black light in particular are wonderful.

Orphan is a film with so many good things in it, that I am willing to overlook some of the things that do no work. I wish the writers had found a better way to end the film, instead of recycling one cliché after another. But since the clichés are so well executed, I hardly care. Orphan is an uncommonly good American horror film.

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