I got knocked sideways by THE ORPHAN, and I LIKED IT. I intended to watch it because I am the biggest Vera Farmiga fan on the planet. I feel that Vera Farmiga is an extremely sincere actor, and I put that on Paul Walker’s RUNNING SCARED. But honestly, as a cynical thriller fan, I wasn’t ready for the humbling that I took or the fun that I had watching THE ORPHAN.
Two weeks ago a friend of mine told me that he was hearing nothing but good things about this movie. I shot back recklessly that I had heard nothing but trash about it. But the seed had been planted.
THE ORPHAN is everything that you don't expect it to be. From the previews it looks like a teeny-bopper PG-13, but it actually turns out to be a pretty rugged R. The previews also fail to suggest how strong some of the performances are in this film. Plot-wise, this film is clockwork. It is pieced together with care, love and a lot of thought for the seasoned thriller viewer.
The tagline "You will never guess her secret" is right; you won't. And when it is revealed, all of the loose ends in the film tighten up and cinch so violently that your head will be spinning for the next few hours. Mine was.
The plot is realistic enough. A well-off couple adopt a nine year-old girl, Esther (Isabelle Fuhrman). This couple has suffered through a series of tragedies. There has been an affair, alcoholism and most brutally, a stillborn child at the end of a pregnancy term. These are hurting people with a four year-old deaf daughter and an introspective son in elementary school.
As Esther is integrated into the family, the issues plaguing them are revealed incrementally. It is a brilliant device that keeps the audience empathizing with the family as you get to know them. It becomes apparent that a child like Esther is the last thing that these people need. When Kate (Vera Farmiga) spurns the sexual advances of her husband John (Peter Sarsgaard), it is off-putting until the news of the affair is revealed. When the two finally manage a tryst, we are watching, and so is Esther.
This sort of discomfort continues. The marketing and the title of the film, set us up to expect the worst out of Esther, and we get it. She is indeed a heartless manipulator. She kills a pigeon without the slightest wince simply to "put it out of its misery." She exacts violent revenge on a fellow student and manages to sidestep the consequences. And she plays headgames. She plays the kind of headgames that pit the other family members against each other.
Also, how does Esther know so much about the world around her? How come she is an orphan from Russia but there are no records of her birth? How is she such an accomplished artist? How can she play flawless Tchaikovsky?
If I have one complaint about his film, it would be regarding the limp-wristed, easily manipulated characterization of the adoptive father, John. He is inexplicably oblivious the chaos brewing in his own house. This is a plot hole so wide you can reach your hand through it and grab the writer on the other side. It is too easy that such blindness is given to the patriarch, a character who would otherwise be expected to regulate the situation. Esther's game is divide and conquer, and with a mark as easy as John, she is able to really run this family hard.
As the tension mounts, every scene contains a level of stress. When the secret is finally out, all hell breaks loose with such precision and finesse that you want it to linger as long as possible.
This thriller is good enough to see in the theater and it will be a fantastic DVD rental. I even woke up the other night and connected more dots from the film. The enjoyment that I have had as a result of THE ORPHAN is much more than I ever expected. This film is akin to going to a garage sale and finding a rare collectible in the 25 cent box. It was a treat to get humbled by a film that looks like a benign GOOD SON retread. THE ORPHAN is way out of the GOOD SON’s league. Do your best to stay away from the spoilers, and have yourself a great time.