Orphan deserves four stars. Not because it’s good, quite the opposite actually. There should be a different scale for Orphan, a scale that would include films like Feardotcom, Pearl Harbor, and probably Transformers 2, movies that are laughably bad, that almost seem to go out of their way to be truly over the top and dreadful. They shouldn’t get graded on the same merits as films like The Departed (which actually may come back later in this review, oddly enough). There should be a Terrible Scale, a scale that allows a reviewer to assess how fabulously awful a movie is, and how enjoyable it is because of its lack of quality. On this scale, Orphan would be a four. Unfortunately on all real life scales, Orphan is far less.
The flick is about exactly what you think it’s about. After dealing with the tragedy of a stillborn baby, a young family (Kate and John and their two kids, Max and Daniel) decides to adopt a child, and for some reason, rather than taking the decidedly simpler road of adopting a newborn baby, they adopt a nine-year-old girl. This kid, who is appropriately and creepily named Esther (how this couple did not see what was to come by the name alone is beyond me), who is all sorts of charming to begin with, turns out to be a far different kid than the family signed up for, has a dark past, one filled with coincidence and misfortune. Of course, we know it from the beginning, but we’re supposed to. Otherwise, why would we be in the theatre in first place? So in essence, Orphan must set out to defy our preconceptions of how eerie and horrifying this little girl can be.
Oh and is she ever creepy. In the first act alone, Esther uses a brick in a splatteriffic manner, makes a teasing little girl pay, and makes the obligatory walk-in-on-your-parents-during-relations moment even more awkward than it naturally is. This is all before she turns completely psycho. You’ll have to drop $10 to see that. At the end of the day, all of these and the other Esther moments are played more for shock value rather than the “creepy kid” factor. If a full-grown adult did the things she does, we’d certainly be just as appalled. But with her Vladimir Putin accent and odd attire, Esther is a pretty decent scary kid.
Even so, Orphan is filled with all the expected horror clichés. For When somebody opens a medicine cabinet, you know for a fact there will be someone there when they close it. Not the first time, though. That’s too predictable. Always the second time. Claustrophobic camera angles mean there is probably someone right where you can’t see them. The score, with its rising disharmonies and sudden crashes, suggests when there may be a scare, just in case we can’t figure it out for ourselves.
Orphan’s characters tend to act in whatever way serves the plot best. Kate is sometimes a raging alcoholic, sometimes an overly caring mother. Infidelity issues come up between Kate and John somewhere in the second act and hardly come up again. John is sometimes a trusting, loving husband and father, other times he’s ignorant and disloyal. There’s a therapist who tends to Kate and John’s relationship problems. Rather than being the learned psychoanalyst she should be, she falls into Esther’s traps like everyone else.
If anything, Orphan works better as a comedy than it does as a horror film. The flick has several great laughs, most at the expense of its characters. Some moments were likely intentional, others were definitely not, and even more are hard to figure out. And when it all comes down to it, that’s exactly why Orphan falters. Its drama is never truly defined, its comedy rarely comes from moments that are supposed to be funny, and its scares, twists, and revelations are so absurd and silly that it’s impossible to take this movie as anything more than a goofy experiment for a few good actors. With Peter Sarsgaard (does his last name suggest that he can protect us from certain powdery terrorist weapon?) and Vera Farmiga in the lead roles and Leo Dicaprio producing (who worked with Farmiga in the aforementioned The Departed), one has to wonder if the three of them all sat in a room wondering what they could pass off as legitimate horror. Maybe they all played a game where they tried to see who could come up with the most illogical twist (oh, and believe you me, it is ridiculous) to a movie that people would still allow to happen without walking out of the theatre.
Even after all of this, though, it’s hard not to recommend Orphan. It was awful, implausible, cliché, and stupid, but with an audience full of rambunctious twenty-somethings, it would be impossible to not at least enjoy the experience of the movie. The laughing at inappropriate moments, the moans and groans, the collective disbelief that someone actually created this piece of work currently on screen. There’s no way to give this film a decent grade, but I can tell you that in 20 years, when your kids are watching it out of irony, you have a chance, right now, to be able to tell them that you actually paid to see Orphan while it was in theatres. And you thought it was stupid too.