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Movie Review: Orphan (2009)

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When I first saw the trailer for this movie I was afraid it was just going to be another lame "creepy kid" movie. We have had a ton of them over the past couple of years with many not being particularly good. It really looked to be channeling the likes of The Omen and The Good Son, and do we really need another one of them? Still, being a dutiful little horror movie fan, off I went to the screening, hoping for the best but not expecting all that much. One fact that gave me a little reason to hope is the R-rating. No, it is not that the rating gives any indication of quality, but all too often these creepy kid films play it toward the middle, deliver a PG-13 movie and struggle to deliver much of a compelling tale. So, the question now is: does Orphan deliver?

The short answer is yes. This movie delivers so much more than I had hoped. Orphan is creepy, thrilling, scary, funny, dramatic, and completely entertaining. That said, I would not go so far as to say it is a terribly original film, but as creepy kid movies go, this has to land in the upper echelon of the sub-genre. It does just about everything right, and judging by the reactions of the crowd around me, I am not alone in this feeling. Everyone seemed to be going along for the ride, reacting at just the right moment, collective jolts, jumps, and even moments of applause and cheering. It was an all around excellent experience that I had not thought I would have when I entered the theater, although the fact that the screening sold out should have given me a hint. Surprisingly enough, even the teen audience members were behaving themselves as they got wrapped up in the movie. If nothing else, that has to be considered high praise with this attention span-addled, text messaging youth culture.

The movie opens with an eye-grabbing sequence as John (Peter Sarsgaard) and Kate Coleman (Vera Farmiga) arrive at the hospital just as Kate is about to give birth. However, there is a problem, something is definitely going wrong as they wheel Kate down to the delivery room. When she wakes in her own bed, Kate realizes it was only a nightmare. The couple has lost a child, stillborn, and have been struggling to recover from the loss. This healing process has found them with excess love that had been reserved for the child they lost and they want to share their abundance. In order to satiate their need to give, the couple has chosen to adopt a child to join their son Danny and daughter Max, who is also almost entirely deaf.

John and Kate visit an orphanage where they immediately connect with a 9 year-old Russian girl named Esther (Isabelle Fuhrman). She is sort of an odd youngster, opting to stay away from the other kids and painting by herself in a corner. She also wears frilly dresses and ribbons around her neck and wrists. Kate tells her, "There's nothing wrong with being different." We believe her, we all know this to be true, although that is usually tougher to deal with as a child. In any case, the papers are drawn up and Esther becomes a part of the Coleman family. They have no idea what they are in for.

No sooner has Esther entered their home that strange things begin to happen. Esther is not quite the little angel that Kate thought she was. The trappings of a domestic thriller begin to take shape as Esther seemingly plays them against each other while also protecting a secret about herself. It is interesting how Esther's craziness stirs up lingering issues between John and Kate that had been laying dormant. Of course, it is also interesting how none of their problems are caused by the other yet come together in an explosive mix of violence-laden insanity.

This is a movie I would so enjoy telling the details of. The problem is, if I did that what drive would you have to see the movie? It could easily be ruined by giving the wrong detail. What is shown in the trailers is the tip of the iceberg. I know it is not a movie that will change the world, but it delivers where it should.

Orphan is a movie that can be nitpicked to death, like just about any movie, but the movie is so convincing in how it presents its story that it is easy to overlook those issues. Besides, this is a movie more interested in atmosphere and visceral impact than it is about factual integrity. There is nothing wrong with that — I do not require strict adherence to my reality in my movies. Why should I?  It seems to me that would handcuff the creative process. I mean, if you want to be slavish to reality, go for it, if it works, it  works, I just do not always require it.

Additionally, the performances here are quite good. Vera Farmiga delivers a fine performance as the embattled mother haunted by past indiscretions with alcohol that still hang over her head and raise questions about her allegations against the young Esther. She carries so much of the film's tension throughout that she cannot be ignored. At her side is Peter Sarsgaard who has always turned in solid work. His character here is rather subdued, but it works just fine. The final member of our primary trio is Isabelle Fuhrman who delivers on the promise of the creepy kid. She has that unsettling stare down pat, and that accent and delivery just gives me shivers, she exudes evil.

Aside from our primary leads, there is one other character that deserves an enormous amount of credit. Aryana Engineer delivers a wonderful performance as Max, John and Kate's deaf daughter who is caught under the influence of Esther. She is an adorable young girl who, according to IMDb has mild hearing loss. She adds so much flavor to the movie with her wonderful expressions, she will surely have an impact on your viewing experience.

The screenplay is a good one, although there are times when I think it could have been a little bit stronger, particularly with the parents' problems, too much is left to the audience to piece together. Leaving the audience to figure things out is not necessarily a bad thing, it is more a problem with the nebulous way in which some of them land, or miss as the case may be. Still, by and large, the pieces do ultimately fit together in a way that makes the tension work.

Director Jaume Collet-Serra has had an interesting career leading to this film. He debuted in 2005 with the horror remake, House of Wax (which was decent, but better known for killing Paris Hilton), took a sidestep into drama with Goal II, which has lead to Orphan, clearly his most accomplished film to date. He gives the movie a great pace and uses interesting angles and timing to keep everyone off-center and susceptible to the next scare. It will be interesting to see where he goes from here.

Bottomline. I really like this movie, I love the energy, I love how it feels familiar yet fresh, I love that the craziness that gets ratcheted up as we get close to the finish. It is a strong movie that defied my expectations. This is an experience well worth having.

Highly Recommended.

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