Let's get right out with it: Orphan is ridiculous.
The premise is ridiculous, the storyline is ridiculous, and the twist — oh, the twist — is a thing simultaneously baffling and hilarious. Even the movie posters veer straight into silly, proudly proclaiming "There's Something Wrong With Esther" above the massive head of the titular orphan herself. Well, no duh there's something wrong with Esther, man. Her face is perfectly symmetrical, and everybody who is anybody knows that's just weird.
But for all of its quirky mix of murder and comedy, Orphan manages another distinction: it's the most fun I've had with a horror flick in years. Why? It all comes down to perspective.
Lower your expectations and you'll do just fine. Odd advice, but it's wise knowing exactly what you're getting into here. Orphan's unique subject matter might taste strongly of B-movie shlock, but the package surprises with a budget befitting a far more serious film. The slick production values might even trick you into expecting something more than just another creepy kid flick, so don't be fooled — even with a somewhat slow opening, the film's true color bleeds through before long.
Right off the bat you're introduced to Kate Coleman (Vera Farmiga), a troubled mother of two still haunted by a failed third pregnancy. The wound is clearly fresh, but she seems willing still to go along with husband John's (Peter Sarsgaard) desire to adopt. And so they add fresh-faced but odd little Esther (Isabelle Fuhrman) to their family, initially a great match with near-deaf daughter Max (Aryana Engineer). Guitar Hero son Danny (Jimmy Bennett) doesn't take to her at all, one of the few cases where a punk kid's intuition turns out to be startlingly correct.
The cast do a fine job with their roles. Farmiga bridges the gap well between sorrowful, paranoid, and pissed, convincingly portraying a mother put through the wringer from beginning to end of the film. Husband John plays the oblivious card pretty well, and Danny is a sullen teen with the best of them, but leave it to the young ladies to steal the show.
Max is cute as a button every time she pops up on screen, even during the darker moments, and easily the second most compelling reason to skip adoption entirely and make your own curly-haired darlings. The first most compelling reason is Esther herself, very well portrayed by Fuhrman as a creepy little kid with far more than hopscotch on her agenda.
She puts the entire family through hell with the cold detachment you'd expect from a serial killer, playing the parents off each other and even threatening poor Danny's distinctly male attachments with a wicked grin. It's more than a little unnerving at times, seeing this little girl do some distinctly terrible things. It's also faintly hilarious.
That's the divisive point here: Orphan is funny. Unintentionally, perhaps, but it's hard not to watch Esther go perfectly about her violent business without cracking a smile every so often. You might also enjoy the stunned laughter, a silent, breathless chuckle as your jaw hangs slack toward the screen. That one happens a lot. Every time Esther gets angry, for example, which happens about as often as you'd expect in a two-hour film.
It's all just ridiculous. Even before the earth-shattering twist — oh, the twist – near the end, Esther does some pretty astonishing stuff, feats of subterfuge so incredibly brilliant and un-childlike that you can be excused for saying, "Oh, okay. Riiiight."
Right. That's what it comes down to — a horror film with some genuinely frightening moments, including an extended finale that would seem cliché if it weren't so edge-of-your-seat intense. It's also marvelously campy, a concept incredibly silly but still undeniably entertaining, a blast to watch and even more fun to discuss in subdued tones with your friends once the credits start to roll.
Oh. The credits? A montage of gruesome imagery, just the icing on top of the entire bloody cake. There's no particular reason for it, but you can almost imagine the directorial meeting that spawned this kind of thing: "You know what we need? More blood. Thick, syrupy finger nail polish as black as Esther's heart." You'll see what I mean.
And you know what? It works. It does the job just as well as every other part of the film, cementing Orphan in that hazy gray area between horror and comedy. It's fun to watch, fun to make fun of, and probably the most nonsensical thing you'll see all year — so what are you waiting for?