Saturday, August 8, 2009

Orphan (2009, Jaume Collet-Serra)

The quasi-incestuous pedophiliac scenes of Orphan are already bound for footnotes in the downfall of Western Civilization. The sole unexpected moment in the whole move comes directly after (except the twist ending, which is only an explanation - we know she's evil pretty quickly - is whom is titular orphan Esther's second and final victim. Everything else is telegraphed miles ahead, even by the camera setups. In two hours, Alex Mace's story and David Johnson's screenplay use every minute to rip off every every killer kid klassic anyone has every seen and no manipulation comes as a surprise. Very little makes sense and happens only in service of the amalgamating the subgenre's beloved cliches, like the psycho who moves from family to family a la Terry O'Quinn in The Stepfather and the psyching-out of terrorized children a la The Good Son. In the role of The One Person Who Knows The Truth But Whom No One Believes is Vera Farmiga, as the mom. Her character had a drinking problem, you see, and in a slightly clever deviation from cliche, Farmiga was the one who wanted to adopt in the first place. Of course you the viewer already know that Esther is bad news. A lesser movie might've killed a lot of time forcing the audience to pretend to guess at what we already know is happening, like when the first act of Child's Play pretends we don't know for sure if Chucky is alive because that mom is still figuring. Thankfully doesn't turn into a superpowered ass kicking machine in the final act, and holds her own dramatically in the face of her disbelieving idiot husband and psychiatrist who think her ravings about Esther are just a bad case of buyer's remorse.

CCH Pounder brings a lot more nuance to her role as the nun who signs the adoption papers, and the kids playing Farmiga's two previous children are also well cast. They feel like a real family, or a least a real TV family. The boy playing the son has an intriguing turn when Esther takes his place as the dominant child, and the girl playing the young daughter has the dramatically anticipatory handicap of being deaf, yet neither of these details pay off. Mace and Johnson packed so many plants so many setups that Collet-Serra can't even get through them all. Instead, thankfully, he embraces the formula at hand and focuses on drawing credible performances from the oblivious victims and a sinister one from his lethal little lady.

The whole movie hangs on Isabelle Fuhrman as the orphan, and she's good enough. Some adoption agencies protested the film's advertising, which teased "There's something wrong with Esther, and you too if you're an easily offended bastard in a basket." The poster mirrors one half of Fuhrman's face to achieve a subtle creepy effect, athough her porcelain skin is practically normal by the pore-shrinking standards of modern movie poster photoshoppery. This and the other tagline, "Can you keep a secret?" both imply a lot more pretension and annoying guessing games than are actually in play - none whatsoever. Collet-Serra is refreshingly eager to please with his creepy kid and her bad behavior and everything is as it seems. Every escalation of danger happens comfortably by rote and with only two victims the film relies mainly on Esther's intimidation and manipulation of others for entertainment. This alone makes Esther one of the more memorable horror villains in a decade when the genre has sorely lacked good performances. What keeps her and the film far from classic status is that for as many fun killer kid kliches she embodies so schizophrenically well, there's nothing new to see. Having the girl simply be a manipulative psychopath and not the vengeful spirit of Farmiga's stillborn (as the dreamy prologue depicts) is a deliberate throwback after the recent epoch of creepy little Asian ghost girls. Like her predecessors, this evil tyke doesn't need special powers to get away with murder. Only an array of astonishingly stupid adults, the kind who have sex in the kitchen while their kids are in the other room.

That Collet-Serra's setpieces, all ripped from other movies anyway, have any excitement at all is a shocker considering how predictable everything is. Occasionally descending to complete tastelessness, as in the aforementioned seduction, Orphan is joyfully reverent to the cliches killer kid fans expect and plants its feet on each visible cue mark proudly.

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