Orphan is a changeling. It has a twisty secret which makes it make more sense near the end, but at the same time that it's fully competent, serious, suspenseful, it's also wantonly cheesy, silly, nutty, stupid and cheap. In other words, it's nobody's great movie, but for a popcorny horror flick, it's not bad.
The film starts with the movie's title fading over a lit background in about the same way and with the same font as the beginning of "Oprah," a visual pun I found somewhat amusing. It's a little indicative of the sense of irony and humor which are on display throughout the film--a bit weird, a bit sick, and not too sure of the point.
Vera Farmiga is the heart of the movie, and, as with a few of her other recent efforts, without her, it would be much less. She plays Kate Coleman, a young mother still grieving the loss of a child during childbirth when she and her husband John (Peter Sarsgaard) decide to look into adopting an older child to add to their family, which already includes a young son, Daniel (Jimmy Bennett) and a hearing-impaired daughter, Max (Aryana Engineer).
They (rather, shall we say, unwisely) decide to adopt the first child they meet, Esther (Isabelle Fuhrman), who is smart, a talented painter, and lovely. She is a Russian-born child raised in a Russian orphanage, and her previous adoptive family ALL DIED IN A FIRE SHE MIRACULOUSLY ESCAPED. This does not seem to make much of an impression on the Colemans, who are seduced at first by Esther's eccentricities and interests, and bring her home for good very quickly.
The young actress who plays Esther is really pretty good, too, even if the script poses challenges to credibility. She plays Esther as the perfect manipulator, a true "bad seed," who controls her environment with ruthless efficiency, whether this requires her to play innocent, charm or threaten to get her way. Fuhrman has the range to bring it off well.
Overall, from the adoption, the movie moves pretty well, even quite cleverly in places, though stupidly in others. There's a strong Chekhovian economy of symbols, like Kate's journal, a locked treehouse and a rosebush with particular significance. They are incorporated well and come back into focus in the story just about like they should. The other children in the family are pretty interesting and persuasive, and in particular the silent sign-language world of the youngest daughter, Max, is often entrancing. And Esther's relationships with both parents work pretty well for most of the movie, with John's particular affinity for Esther, and Kate's well-meaning attempts to include her. This breaks down a bit as we go along, but is mostly effective.
There's also some interesting timing from the director when we get to the jump-startle parts of the film. Instead of just paying them off, or leaving them hanging immediately, they are signals that have a more delayed resolution, sometimes unexpected. It's a little intelligent relief from more predictably paced recent jumpers.
Near the end, the film adds the aforementioned twist, which I don't want to spoil, even if I think it's stupid, and veers in other ways as well. Kate finally does some research into Esther's past, which is coincidentally placed, but not particularly believable in its amazing tardiness. There's a strange scene with Fuhrman and Sarsgaard which pushes a lot of buttons, but doesn't mean much. And the neon night-light paint-overs of Esther's serene canvases pushes things into some pretty silly, schlocky territory, without being as fun or diverting as real schlock.
Overall, it's a good night at the movies, especially if you're just looking to be jump-thrilled and see some good performances. If you're looking for much more than that, like meanings, common sense, conviction--look elsewhere. The closest this film comes to meaning anything is the handy advice to grieving recovering alcoholics not to adopt children with a history of arson, which is handy, but probably not an actually enlightening lesson. There are a couple of more interesting recent "bad seed" type of films which are more fun and deeper, Birth and Joshua, but this isn't a terrible horror version.
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