She wears ribbons on her wrists and neck. She dresses like Little Bo Peep. She paints. She plays classical piano. Oh, and one more thing. She’s a cold-blooded killer.
Esther is a 9-year-old Russian with a lot of secrets. And she’s about to be adopted by a family with secrets of their own.
The movie Orphan begins with a nightmare. The beautiful Vera Farmiga in a good performance relives the trauma of losing what would’ve been her third child, a daughter named Jessica. Not only that, she’s a recovering alcoholic who nearly lost another daughter in an accident near the family home. Her husband Peter Saarsgard has his own shame. He’s strayed. (Hard to believe considering how hot and lovely Farmiga is.) Both continue to feel tempted to fall back into their former self-destructive ways.
No longer able to bear biological children (her reproductive organs were removed after the stillbirth), Farmiga ultimately decides to adopt. 15 minutes into the movie, Saarsgard hears someone singing The Glory Of Love (not the theme from Karate Kid 2) on the second floor of a Catholic orphanage and meets Esther. She’s cheerfully working on her latest painting. Saarsgard’s impressed with her work and blatantly insincere personality. Her trap is laid.
Shortly thereafter, Esther is introduced to her new siblings, mostly-deaf sister Max (Aryana Engineer) and Guitar Hero-lovin’ brother Danny (Jimmy Bennett). Things seem to be going well until Danny stupidly decides to shoot his paintball gun at an innocent pigeon. The power of the shot knocks it right to the ground and he weeps over its agony. When he refuses Esther’s request to put it out of its misery, she takes a giant rock and squashes it to death. Lovely.
At school, her outdated attire and unsubtly weird demeanour attracts constant mockery and abuse. One such bully pays the price when she decides to go down a slide at a playground. Hope you weren’t too attached to that ankle, kiddo.
After taking some piano lessons from former music teacher Farmiga (who isn’t much of a composer), Esther shocks her one afternoon by playing more fluently than she does. When she catches Farmiga getting boned from behind by a frisky Saarsgard in the kitchen, she knows very well what they were doing.
Then nun CCH Pounder pays a visit. She has a bad feeling about Esther. (Then why did she allow her to be adopted without a thorough background check in the first place?) So does Farmiga who wonders why Saarsgard isn’t taking her side. Next thing you know, Pounder’s getting pounded with a hammer.
The diabolical Esther soon threatens both Max and Danny into staying quiet (they know and have seen too much) unless they too want to meet grisly ends. Meanwhile, Farmiga grows ever more suspicious and eventually discovers that Esther’s behaviour is more consistent with that of a slick sociopath than an innocent child.
Over time, we learn Esther’s true intentions. She wants Saarsgard. Sexually. She develops a phony bond with him which affords her some much needed protection. As Farmiga and the kids slowly start to turn on her, Saarsgard, ever so foolish, is the stubborn holdout, lamely defending her from every legitimate accusation. In Orphan’s most aggravating scene, an infuriated Farmiga fails to convince Saarsgard & her very dumb shrink that Esther is the problem, not her own temptation to relapse.
It’s hard to believe Roger Ebert loved this movie. Orphan is as clichéd as it gets. The film is somewhat reminiscent of The Hand That Rocks The Cradle (another routine thriller) even though Rebecca De Mornay’s vengeful nanny was a much scarier character than Esther. Both villains act in similar fashion. They both completely misrepresent themselves to not-so-skeptical families. When their cover’s about to be blown by smarter characters, they both get away with bumping them off. Others are merely scared off from speaking out. As the matriarchs gradually learn all their secrets, the patriarchs stand by them. Hell, just like Cradle, there’s a scene where the heel has a big freakout in the bathroom that no one else hears.
Which brings us to the big reveal, the true identity of Esther. It ranks right down there with the bogus twist in The Village, a slightly worse film. If Esther was genuinely terrifying (and she’s really not), maybe it would’ve had more of an impact. As it stands, it’s just not credible.
Also not credible is how long it takes for Saarsgard to wake up and pay attention. Esther has to literally throw herself at him before he finally understands Farmiga’s deep concerns. By then, it’s too late. One wonders if Saarsgard’s character was written that unsympathetically for a very specific reason.
Orphan drags out its familiar formula (with a few admittedly intelligent touches) for two hours (Cradle was almost the same length) and while it has its moments (Farmiga and Max acting heroically, for instance), it’s hard to take it seriously. (There are a few unintentional laughs.) The supremely smug Esther just isn’t that intimidating or as clever as she thinks she is. Her “superficial charm” game is so transparent right from the start it’s hard to accept anyone with a brain buying her duplicitousness. She’s not that good a faker.
It’s a frustrating experience watching this tiny phony hold this entire family hostage when she can be easily & collectively overtaken in five seconds.
Hamilton, Ontario, Canada
Sunday, March 27, 2016