Sunday, August 9, 2009

The Good Daughter

I love the taste of liquid butter when accompanied with a fresh theatrical horror release and for that reason and several others, I heart Jaume Collet-Serra’s Orphan.

You’ve seen the posters. Maybe read some wildly mixed reviews, which range from a glowing 3.5 Ebert enhanced stars to The New York Times’ raging dismissal. Now just see the movie

...after reading this:

Quick Plot: Well-off Connecticut couple Kate (Vera Farmiga) and John (Peter Sarsgaard) are trying to recover from a few more-than-unpleasant recent events: the stillborn birth of their third child, the near drowning of young daughter Max, and the unsteady acknowledgment of Kate’s alcoholism (“I didn’t go to AA. I just stopped drinking.”). Naturally, they’re in the perfect position to adopt a child.

The lucky orphaness is none other than Esther, a well-spoken and well-dressed (for the Victorian era) Russian lass who survived a mysterious house fire that not suspiciously took the rest of her family. A talented little artist, Esther charms her new dad with paintings that would totally kick the skinny hipster ass of Ethan Hawke’s tortured Great Expectations hack while quickly bonding with Max by learning the complete sign language dictionary in the time it takes eat a fun-sized Milky Way.

Life would be fine and fairy tale happy if, you know, this wasn’t a horror film. Thankfully, Orphan has plenty of tension to build thanks a good deal in part to Farmiga’s Kate. You might recognize her as the token what-do-I-do-with-her female in Scorcesse’s overrated The Departed (a good film, but more a cheap attempt to apologize for snubbing Goodfellas than a Best Picture and Director earner). Here, Farmiga creates a completely believable and complicated woman. Sarsgaard is somewhat burdened with the doofier role, but in their shared scenes, these two create a realistic married couple who love one another, but must at times deal with personal distrust and the fact that they both simply love their children more.

It’s not that Orphan is revolutionary in its approach to the bad seed formula. If anything, there are certain set pieces that just scream to be used in the final act and leave you little surprised at their execution. At the same time, Orphan is richer than Esther’s velvety choker when it comes to tossing in some shockingly bizarre oh-no-they-didn’t moments. Most importantly, the entire cast equips itself with full dedication in bringing to life a nice enough family and the incredibly evil presence about to invade it.

I wasn’t entirely sold on the film’s resolution, but for two hours, I was amused, a little disturbed, a moment or two frightened, and entirely entertained.

High Points
Young Aryanna Engineer is both angelic and sympathetically real as Max, the sweet but far too trusting little sister-to-be

Orphan’s opening sequence is unsettling in more ways than one; yes, there’s the whole scary childbirthing blood, but it’s the Freudian role play that makes it work on a deeper level. I’ve never given birth, but I imagine that during such an experience, I too would cast the father of my outcoming fetus in a rather villainous role

Farmiga gives Kate her all throughout the film, but my personal favorite moment of her performance comes the morning after Esther causes a slight coitus interruptus. The hopeful look on Farmiga’s face after her clearly rehearsed explanation of what sex means to adults is pitch perfect

Low Points
There’s a whole lot of predictability throughout Orphan, which definitely whittles down its scare factor by a bit

I get that the film is trying to hold onto bloodthirsty viewers during its non-violent middle chunk, but quick cut jump scares involving bathroom mirrors feel far too forced

Lessons Learned
Fantastical treehouses that could only exist in cinema and television (just how did Bart or Homer build such a sturdy little cabin anyway?) are as flammable as they are impressive

Snorphan jokes are funny, but a tad tasteless when said on the way to adopting a child

Setting a film in winter will automatically earn it bonus points because peacoats, precariously iced over ponds, and clumsy gloves are naturally good scare factors

Connecticut cops are not prompt

See/Skip/Sneak Into
Skip two days of iced cappuccinos and see this movie. Not only does it deliver $10 worth of entertainment ($12.50 if you reside in that darned NYC) but enough fans paying for original horror sends a positive message to creativity-challenged studios about what we really want.

My motives for seeing Orphan were in no small part due to one Mr. Matt-suzaka, whose thoroughly splendiforous new blog featured a truly inspiring horror call to arms, which is not to go unread or unheeded. His post actually forced my Merrill sneakers to hit the subway and see what indeed was wrong with Esther, and for that I’m quite thankful.


  1. Love the review. I also love that fact that you are using "darn kids" as a tag (LOL). Not sure why I haven't seen this one yet. I will need to get out there this week


  2. Thanks a bunch for the comment! You most certainly do need to get to a theater this week. Support original horror by splurging on some good old fashioned kid killing (or kid killer, I guess; kid killing is all uncomfortable and stuff) trashy fun.

  3. Awesome review, sounds almost exactly like I thought the film would be like. I still have yet to see it, but I plan on doing so over the next few days, and I cannot wait. It's great to see well received Hollywood released horror do decently in theaters for once. Hope it is a push in the right direction...well see.

    I'm happy to have inspired you to check out Orphan, and I also must thank you for your very kind words!

    And for the record, I too LOVE snow in my movies so much!

  4. Thanks Matt! I rewatched Let the Right One In the other night and it truly reaffirmed my belief that every horror film should take place in winter, particularly when the real world is slogging through a 90 degree day with no air conditioning.

  5. I e=watched this movie, the girl is pure evil....