Suffering the loss of a pregnancy, the Coleman family decides to adopt an older child, an orphan from Russia. Orphan strains to make benign scenes frightening, consequently asphyxiating the truly scary moments.
Kate (Vera Farmiga) and John (Peter Sarsgaard) want to add another child to their family, but after the still-birth of their child and family tragedy, pregnancy wasn’t an option anymore. They decided to adopt a child from a Catholic orphanage. There, they meet Ester, a young girl from Russia who lost her family. Her special gifts capture their attention, her special way of carrying herself intrigued them, and her resolved maturity made her a perfect fit for their family. At first, daughter Max (Aryana Engineer) adores Ester and son Daniel (Jimmy Bennett) pushes her away in a perfectly typical way. It isn’t long before Max, Daniel and Kate feel an ever-swelling, unsustainable tension with Ester and John.
In the first few minutes of Orphan, there are an uncountable number of scary noises set to normal occurrences and attempts to falsely manipulate the mood of the audience. A bathroom mirror moves and it sounds like a killer is standing right behind them. A girl comes down the stairs and music shrieks. The first few times it’s obvious the director is trying to tell you, “This is a horror movie, be ready”, but about ten minutes into the film the audience was laughing at these ridiculous attempts to stage-manage the viewers. It was the cinematic equivalent of the lights used in TV studios to tell the audience to laugh or clap on queue. The director, Jaume Collet-Serra, might as well put the classic “don-dun-DUN” every few minutes; it would have the same effect.
Writers David Johnson and Alex Mace wobble between moments of natural, organic storytelling and ridiculously kludgy dialogue. Johnson and Mace handle the emotional moments between action scenes dexterously but whenever there is a fearful moment or action, the writing completely falls apart. They delicately unravel the Coleman family’s back-story by gingerly dropping bits of information into conversations on other subjects. The characters’ feelings for each other are not readily apparent and as the stress piles on, their restraint falls away. But these resonant moments are squished between monumentally idiotic scenes that suffocate the audience’s relationship with the characters. Anyone with a sixth grade understanding of human beings can figure out the ending long before it happens. No one seems able to care for themselves. Vague answers go unquestioned. Like a sadistic serial killer, Johnson and Mace strangle and revive the audience, over and over again.
The inconsistency spreads to the actors by extension. It is hard, even if you are a good actor, to act well when your script resembles a collage. More than any other character, John is hamstrung by the writing. There is a scene at the end of the movie where he has to be both drunk, shocked, turned on, turned off, freaked out, confused and resolved. It is supposed to be a shocking moment but the audience laughed so loudly, I could not hear the next line.
Still, Orphan is not a complete failure. The horror scenes are gory enough to be entertaining but not so gory as to be torture porn. There is one scene that has no blood but made everyone squirm in their seats. After the violent moments, the tension continues when one character attempts to control another by threatening loved ones. It is disgusting, angering, uncomfortable and fantastic.
Issues aside, Orphan would be a great first date movie with someone who is easily scared because at times, it is a real arm clinger. Horror/thriller fans with low standards for writing and high standards for action would enjoy Orphan. Make it an afternoon date though, to make sure not to pay full price.