Should "Orphan," the latest film from Jaume Collet-Serra, become a box-office success, young actress Isabelle Fuhrman may have a problem.
The young actress is so convincing portraying Esther, a sociopathic Russian-born 9-year-old adopted into the family of John (Peter Sarsgaard) and Kate Coleman (Vera Farmiga) and their two children, that it's hard to imagine Fuhrman would have much luck at all finding work as a normal, healthy or, dare I say it, happy young girl.
"Orphan" is a moral dilemma film and, undoubtedly, there will be those who will give it scathing reviews almost solely based upon its unabashedly amoral and relentlessly sickening plotline involving a very twisted little girl whose rather rains down upon this family.
The dilemma is, of course, that Esther is so relentlessly brutal in her wrath that it could easily be labeled as morally reprehensible to present a child in such a light and, as well, to have an actual child actor, 11-year-old Furhman, portray such a child.
While the objections would be warranted and perhaps justified, the "evil child" storyline has been around for years precisely because it so easily violates our sense of rightness about children even in a world where children and adolescents are these days regularly accused and convicted of incomprehensible crimes.
Basing the entire story in the world of foreign adoption is itself a stroke of genius for screenwriters David Johnson and Alex Mace. After all, while one can never be sure of the "baggage" that comes with adopting an American child the issue is even more potentially troubling if the child is born in a foreign country where economics, politics, theology, language and customs can be significantly at odds with the American lifestyle.
While "Orphan" doesn't quite play up on the fear and built-in paranoia as much as it could or should, there's little denying that Esther's far more terrifying as a Russian-born child than if she'd simply been an adopted American child.
So, too, the parents are given the lamest of excuses for adopting a child, yet it's logic and reasoning that is undoubtedly quite common. In their case, the already fragile couple has recently had a child stillborn while their other two children, the deaf Max (Aryana Engineer) and the sullen Daniel (Jimmy Bennett), have been tremendously negatively impacted by the couple's conflicts to the point that Kate's alcohol problem directly led to Max's deafness.
A nearly broken marriage.
A divided family.
A seemingly gifted, yet unusual child from a foreign land.
You know where this is going.
Largely, you DO know where this is going, though Collet-Serra and the screenwriters certainly throw in a twist here and there to keep the audience jumping...and it works.
Kate does appear, initially, to be a brilliant young child and John, in particular, is quite smitten. She's a gifted pianist and creates seemingly master paintings.
Yet, rather quickly, all but John begin to catch on that something isn't right as tragedies begin to befall those in the family's circle.
Then, there's that simple yet haunting matter of the way Esther dresses as if she were a Chucky Doll during Victorian times with black ribbons that are always around her neck and her wrists.
While "Orphan" runs an unnecessary 2+ hours, it's nearly worth it as the film really picks up pace in its final 20 minutes with a bit of a twist in the storyline that makes the film's final 20 minutes among the film's most pleasurable to view.
While it seems a weird choice for Vera Farmiga to tackle a film such as "Orphan" given that she just played a similar role in 2006's "Joshua," she's mesmerizing as a woman who goes from emotional cripple to a woman of tremendous strength as she begins to figure out that something's going on with Esther.
Similarly, it's difficult to figure out what attracted Sarsgaard to the picture except for the fact that Leonardo DiCaprio is one of the pic's producers. While Sarsgaard seems virtually incapable of a weak performance, he's not given nearly as much to do here and comes off far more bland than usual.
On the other hand, and somewhat disturbingly, "Orphan" features some of the best child actors to grace a screen in quite some time.
Fuhrman is haunting and menacing, endearing and surprisingly disciplined and nuanced as the child who undoubtedly has an agenda to be revealed. Listen to the changes in Furhman's Russian throughout the course of the film, fluctuations that shift with the personality of the character.
Quite simply, it's brilliant acting...even if the actress seems destined for psychotherapy after tackling this role.
Aryana Engineer, a real-life deaf actress, is almost equally as hypnotic as Fuhrman without uttering a single word throughout the film. Engineer's body language, facial expression and especially those eyes communicate far more without an utterance than could many actresses with a full screenplay of dialogue.
Collet-Serra, who directed the "House of Wax" remake, does a wonderful job of framing the characters themselves, though he falls short when it comes to really giving "Orphan" the extra muscle that could have turned it into one of the best films of its genre in recent years.
Too often resorting to graphic violence and artificial scares rather than allowing the story's built-in anxiety and thrills to rule the pic. It's as if, at times, he doesn't truly trust the material he's presenting.
While "Orphan" may not be the film it could be, it's a far more intriguing and satisfying film than one might expect given its rather lame trailers than have been playing in theatres for months now.
Is "Orphan" morally reprehensible?
Yes, actually it is.
It's also a surprisingly effective and satisfying thriller that reaches back into the history of "evil child" films and, perhaps even moreso, plays upon the very real contemporary fears of a society in which children are increasingly capable of rather extraordinary evil.
Morally reprehensible, indeed.
© Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic