Review: Why Orphan's high-minded horror needs sleaze

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Dec 14, 2012, 3:54 PM EST

Prior to Orphan, Jaume Collet-Serra directed two other films, but only one is really relevant for the purposes of this review: House of Wax. By his own admission, it was a formulaic slasher movie where the thrill was not in wondering whether the characters would be killed, but when, especially since it co-starred Paris Hilton.

But while his genre follow-up to that film is a decidedly classier affair, featuring a more talented cast and sophisticated visual style, what it really could use is a little more sleaze. Because Orphan is at heart a trashy horror thriller that requires more spectacle and less subtlety, which unfortunately makes it ultimately less effective than its predecessor, since its exploitation roots—not to mention charms—are gussied up and otherwise obscured by the pretense of studio respectability.

The film stars Vera Farmiga (The Departed) and Peter Sarsgaard (Rendition) as Kate and John Coleman, a married couple who are still reeling from a combination of private catastrophies: a miscarriage, their daughter Max's hearing impairment, a car accident brought on by her drinking, and his infidelities. Seeing a third child as the band-aid that will hopefully cover their bullet holes, John and Kate go to an adoption agency in search of a slightly older child to join their family. They find Esther (Isabelle Fuhrman), a 9-year-old who charms them with her preternatural self-awareness and maturity, and bring her home with the highest of hopes.

Before long, Esther begins to cleverly play the two of them against one another, and drives a deeper wedge between the husband and wife than was previously there—although only Kate seems to notice. But when Esther's behavior turns quite literally deadly, committing crimes and enlisting her new siblings in schemes to protect herself from being removed from the Coleman family, Kate is forced to confront the little girl—and ultimately, her own past—in order to protect her kids and her family from being permanently destroyed.

There are two central threads that drive Orphan's story forward—the dysfunction of the Coleman family and Esther's secret motives for wanting to be adopted. Dramatically speaking, the former is far more interesting to grown-ups, since it involves real people with real problems, and the film shows how poorly some people are able to deal with them. But ultimately, this isn't a movie about relationships, problems or people, at least not real ones; so when the film devotes a good 20 minutes of screen time to revealing the backstory of Kate and John's relationship and their existing kids but fails to concretely address the reasons why they would adopt a third child after having two of their own, we're not sure whether to feel overwhelmed by too many unnecessary details or cheated of necessary ones.

The opening sequences promise a more patient, provocative look at the Coleman family. In one scene, Kate discusses her alcoholism with a psychiatrist, who encourages her progress. In another, she tenderly explains to her daughter (via sign language) that the little girl's baby sister is in heaven. But we get what has happened to the members of this family, and quite frankly don't need multiple recaps and explanations of the tragedies they suffered—although, to be fair, it's unclear whether the little girl's hearing problems are related to the car accident, or if they are mutually exclusive.

Rather, given the wealth of setup and exposition that the first half of the film features, I would have liked to see at least one scene in which the parents talk about why they want to adopt a third child, and why they want one that's a little older. Farmiga's maternal anguish is palpable, but the subtext of all of her character work exploring miscarriage grief is only meaningful if the motivations on the surface are clear.

One supposes that the adoption is, as suggested above, just another superficial solution to the family's much deeper problems. But once they adopt her, virtually all subtlety goes out the window: she begins playing mind games with both parents almost immediately, and soon resorts to violent reprisals for anyone who threatens her place among the Colemans. What's worse is that the other characters demonstrate none of the familiarity or understanding of one another that would naturally occur amongst husbands and wives, parents and children, or even siblings; while one could chalk up Kate and John's frequent misunderstandings to their increasing alienation, it's unforgivable—at least narratively—for either or both of them to be completely unable to recognize when their kids are lying to them, much less terrified of their new sister.

Further, the confrontations and problems that Esther manufactures create satisfyingly cheesy conflicts, but they also defy all emotional authenticity. John and the family psychiatrist confront Kate after she is involved in a near-accident with Max, and the ensuing argument follows no sense of believable logic, much less provokes a conversation that would possibly be recognizable to any real person. But as the film winds toward its gloriously over-the-top finale, what ultimately strains credulity the most is the fact that no matter what is her true identity, Esther still weighs about 80 pounds and is built like, well, a little girl. While I'd almost believe that she was clever enough to outsmart a bunch of self-obsessed adults, it seems unlikely that she could under any circumstances maintain the upper hand in a physical confrontation.

Regardless, more than anything else this is a film in which a monstrous "evil kid" gets the drop on a bunch of unsuspecting grown-ups, and while it's a familiar concept, it isn't a problematic one. Indeed, the conceptual logic in David Leslie Johnson's script is sound, and it builds some terrific tension en route to the last, epic revelation. But that doesn't quite seem to be the movie that the rest of the cast and crew were trying to make; aiming for a tone and execution that resembles elegant thrillers like The Sixth Sense rather than more appropriate counterparts such as The Good Son, they seem to have fatally misunderstood that movies like this work best—or are at least their most entertaining—when they are their wildest and most absurdly self-aware.

As a piece of pure, genre-fed exploitation, Orphan delivers the goods and then some, but it's the pretense of respectability—unfortunately without actually providing substance—that overshadows its often silly, superficial but satisfying scares.