Let’s say you go into “Orphan” expecting a scary story about an evil girl who gets adopted into an unwitting family. In that scenario, you will be disappointed. There are no real scares in the film, only the “ha ha, made you jump!” kind, including a large number of instances where the sound effects and musical score make you think something will happen and then literally nothing happens. Moreover, the story is formulaic and bland, right up until the point when it becomes laughable, using a twist that I distinctly recall from an episode of “Law & Order: SVU.”
So let’s say that instead you go into “Orphan” hoping for something campy that you can giggle at. The film would be suitable for those purposes — and you could make a case for that having been the filmmakers’ intent — except that the director, Jaume Collet-Serra (“House of Wax”), has seen fit to include brutal, graphic violence and several scenes of young children being injured, threatened, or traumatized. We’re having a good time, laughing at the cheesy “thriller,” and then whoops! Here’s a 9-year-old beating someone to death with a hammer, in graphic, splattery detail, while a horrified little girl watches! Yay!
That kind of takes the fun of out it, doesn’t it?
The film begins in a tacky enough fashion, with a grotesque nightmare sequence in which Kate Coleman (Vera Farmiga) relives the anguish of having had a stillborn child a couple years ago. She and her husband, John (Peter Sarsgaard), have two other children, Daniel (Jimmy Bennett), who’s about 10, and Maxine (Aryana Engineer), who’s about 6. Max, as she’s known, is deaf but, as is the case with 100 percent of deaf characters in movies, is an excellent lip-reader. (The cherubic young actress who plays her is deaf, too.)
The Colemans want to adopt a child as a replacement for the dead one (or something), and the kid they choose, from a Catholic orphanage, is Esther (Isabelle Fuhrman), a solemn, 9-year-old Russian with dark hair, pale skin, and the fashion sense of a polygamist wife. Esther is a talented painter who enjoys solitude, which is good, since the other orphans think she’s weird and avoid her. She opens up to John and Kate and, without bothering to introduce her to Daniel and Max first, they bring her home.
Esther immediately learns sign language and bonds with the open-hearted Max, turning the smiling little girl into an unwilling co-conspirator when Esther starts doing terrible things. The terrible things don’t begin right away — first Esther needs to glare menacingly at a lot of people — but once they do begin, boy howdy. This is not one of those films where mysterious things happen and we’re not sure whether the obvious suspect is really the culprit or not. No, we get to witness everything Esther does firsthand. She’s not some wimpy demon spawn, either, causing mild injuries or annoyances. She will straight up KILL YOU.
Since Kate is the film’s true protagonist in first-timer David Johnson’s screenplay, she gets to be the one person who realizes Esther is evil. (Well, Daniel and Max know it, too, but Esther convinces them that their own lives are in danger if they tattle.) Concerned for the safety of her other children, Kate does some serious googling, including the phrase “children who kill.” John, who is kind of an unsupportive bastard, thinks Esther is just misunderstood, and his and Kate’s marriage suffers. Even when Sister Abigail (CCH Pounder) comes from the orphanage to report some irregularities in Esther’s backstory, John dismisses them. A psychiatrist (Margo Martindale) interviews Esther for an hour and determines the girl is fine and Kate’s the one who needs fixing. Which is funny, because I could have spent five minutes with Esther and known she was a psychopath, and I’m not even a psychiatrist.
This endless series of cliches and recycled plot points is dumb but tolerable, I suppose, particularly if you go into it expecting kitsch. (Heaven help you if you thought this would actually be smart, suspenseful, or scary.) Vera Farmiga and creepy young Isabelle Fuhrman give passionate but thankless performances, and Collet-Serra is competent in the functional aspects of filmmaking.
Where he is tone-deaf and oblivious, however, is in the elements I mentioned earlier. In a movie, aiming a gun at a child is a cheap way of raising the stakes. Putting the gun into a child’s hand and requiring him or her to pull the trigger is tasteless. Forcing a young innocent to witness the brutal murder of a loved one — in a movie intended to offer silly, shallow thrills — is inexcusably cruel.
From a plot standpoint, there is no reason the character had to be present and conscious when these things happened. (I’m trying to avoid outright spoilers.) In victimizing children the way it does, the film crosses a line — and not in a cool, taboo-busting sort of way but dumbly, as if Collet-Serra didn’t realize the line was even there. And that’s the really alarming part: that he apparently saw no distinction between a grisly horror flick like “Hostel,” where ignoring the boundaries of good taste is part of the package, and an Evil Child Movie, where it is not. This is galling, distasteful trash. I hope the children involved in making it are never permitted to watch it.
D (2 hrs., 3 min.; )