The second film within two weeks to take the death of a child as its starting point, although Orphan would seem to have little in common with Von Trier’s Antichrist (2009). Or does it? The latter merged the uneasy bedfellows of Strindbergian chamber drama and occult horror to produce a fascinatingly obtuse whole, and Orphan appears to be trying to do something similar in its melding of family melodrama, thriller and recognisable bad-kid horror genre tropes. Yet the intriguing premises and a well-paced first act slowly dissolves into a jumbled mess in the hands of director Jaume Collet-Serra, though admittedly at times something of an enjoyably silly mess, and one whose merits make the film an oddly rewarding, if severely flawed, watch.
Kate and John Coleman are a well-to-do couple living in what seems to be a wintry suburban idyll with their two children, daughter Max and son Daniel. A pleasantly surprising wealth of characterisation in the film’s first act firmly establishes their individual personalities and the dynamic between them. Kate is a caring mother but with certain foibles, most notably a history of alcoholism and lingering emotional scars from a recent stillbirth (a creepy opening nightmare sequence makes this abundantly clear) while John has a history of philandering; their all-too-human flaws understandably result in a residual undercurrent of mutual mistrust between the two. Though close to Max, they are a little distant from the adolescent Daniel, who is just beginning to assert his own separate personality.
Presumably to help them with their grief, as well as overcome their marital difficulties, the couple have decided to adopt a child from the local orphanage, and on visiting are drawn to a bright, precocious, if eccentrically attired Russian girl named Esther. They immediately decide to take her into their family, but their new addition has some difficulty settling in: picked on by her new schoolmates for her strange clothes and withdrawn personality, and viewed with suspicion by Daniel who is perhaps jealous of the attention being foisted on the new arrival. Then, of course, strange happenings begin to occur: Esther exhibits a variety of odd behaviours, has a habit of being around when others are involved in ‘accidents’, and so too repeatedly shows up to interrupt her adoptive parents’ primal scene.
All of this is surprisingly well-handled by director Collet-Serra, whose ignoble oeuvre has so far consisted of previous duds House of Wax (2005) and Goal 2: Living the Dream (2007). Yes, there are problems: the glossiness of the visuals do at times make the film resemble more closely an advert for a high-spec saloon car, and at times the scare scenes are so clichéd and badly handled that they come across as being more for camp value rather than tone. But in building suspense through character, with some well-observed performances from the Coleman family members, and by marshalling a stately pace, he allows the film’s first half to build to a satisfying crescendo of tension.
Here, though, is where the problems begin to stack up. Having done most of the hard work in setting up believably flawed characters and a mysterious ambiguity around Esther, the film suddenly dives into exploitation, with the little monster scurrying around doing all sorts with bricks, hammers, vices and guns. While this does make for entertainingly schlocky viewing, it also has the effect of disjointing the narrative and the pacing, and from its intriguing, promising start the film slowly descends into well-trodden formulaic nonsense, with plot points carelessly thrown against the wall in the hope that some stick, and a rush to a helpfully expositionary phone call to Russia to explain things away before Esther’s big reveal. The sub-par slasher film denouement ultimately leaves the viewer feeling heavily short changed, and adds to the feeling of cheapness that a 123 minute film can ill afford.
What a shame, though, that the film ends up such a horrible mess, since there is much to recommend of it. The two adult leads, Vera Farmiga and Peter Sarsgaard, make for a believably dysfunctional couple, and their young children are also both fleshed out in terms of personality much more than one would expect for such a genre piece. Stealing the show, inevitably, is young Isabelle Fuhrman in the title role, whose initial radiance morphs into a beguilingly stony-faced monster who can well be believed to be either angelic victim or murderous manipulator. Director Collet-Serra clearly has ambitions higher than his previous studio vehicle output might suggest, and this goes some of the way to suggesting that there is an intelligence behind his camera, but Orphan‘s manifold flaws show that there is still much work to be done.