There’s one bit in Orphan that packs a genuine shiver of dark discovery; it involves a black light from a fish tank. Everything else depends on an improbably ingenious and diabolical person among dummies. Kate (Vera Farmiga) has two children, but when she went for number three, it was stillborn, and this made Kate alcoholic and unhappy. After Kate gets fired from teaching music at Yale and goes on the wagon, she and her wimpy husband John (Peter Sarsgaard) decide to adopt an older child. They settle on Esther (Isabelle Fuhrman), a suspiciously gifted and mature nine-year-old. For a while, Esther is the picture of perfect polite kidhood, though when nobody’s around she has a habit of letting her face go slack and murderous. She also has ribbons around her wrists and neck that she won’t let anyone touch.
Orphan is competently directed junk, with a script that abandons logic at every turn and dialogue that even some snarky teenage girls seated behind me could predict out loud before it was delivered. (Usually I resent noisemakers in movie theaters, but these girls actually added some entertainment to the afternoon.) It begins with a thoroughly nasty it-was-only-a-dream sequence and pretty much stays that icky — not in terms of bloodshed but in terms of the weird undertone of every scene. Esther is apparently an orphan from Russia, and the movie gets some mileage out of that — her accent, her archaic wardrobe. Those damn Russkies are sending their psycho girls over here to disrupt our families! Was this script written in the ‘80s or something?
One nice touch is that Kate and John are shown to be hungrily sexual with each other; an interrupted bout in the kitchen is realistically klutzy and all the more erotic for it. This detail, though, turns out to be there solely so that we can see Esther’s moon-faced disapproval. Esther seems to have a thing for her new daddy. Kate begins to suspect there’s more to Esther than she lets on, but nobody takes Kate seriously, and her two children, including a beautiful little hearing-impaired girl, already know what a menace Esther actually is. Essentially, we spend much of the movie waiting for trusting, stupid John to figure things out, and it feels like a very long sit.
Farmiga and Sarsgaard (the latter stuck in a pretty thankless role, especially his penultimate drunk scene) work hard to ground the film in something real; Farmiga’s occasional exhalations of stress or frustration have more character than what has actually been written for her. It’s hard to judge Isabelle Fuhrman’s work here, since Esther barely makes sense even when all is revealed — especially when all is revealed. The eleven-year-old actress does what’s needed, I guess, though her part in Sarsgaard’s aforementioned drunk scene must hit some new low in bad taste, regardless of what we learn about Esther.
The direction by Jaume Collet-Serra (the House of Wax remake) is wintry and somber, with some gorgeous shots of snow blanketing the land around the parents’ large home. But the third act gives itself over to camp — Kate’s final line to Esther belongs in a Charles Busch play — yet the director keeps the tone deadly serious. The teenage girls behind me got into the spirit of the thing, or what the thing should’ve been, and giggled happily throughout the climax, particularly when the adorable little deaf girl toddled over with a gun, fired it, and got launched backwards into a snowdrift. Could Orphan be the next inadvertent ironic cult movie, playing at midnight screenings for sarcastic participatory audiences who start singing “If I Had a Hammer” when a nun gets bludgeoned by one, or yelling “Asshole!” whenever John pooh-poohs Kate’s suspicions? It could very well be the next Rocky Horror or The Room — let it begin here.