I should warn you right up front that I most certainly cannot keep a secret. But then, neither can anyone involved in the marketing of Orphan because without being able to recall specifically where or how, I definitely knew that Esther, the titular orphan, was going to turn out to be an undersized adult. And, as I guess should go without saying, a crazy one.
What I did not expect, however, was that I wouldn’t be thinking about that fact at all until about the time it is revealed onscreen. I feel like this is at once a fault of and tribute to the rest of the movie. On the one hand, it’s great that this kind of picture especially, wasn’t hanging its entire impact on one final (literally) unbelievable twist. But on the other, if there’s a mystery that’s somehow the crux of your story I should maybe at least wonder about it once or twice before it’s introduced as an answer to a largely unasked question.
Still, it’s shocking that this revelation was the only point in the whole movie where the audience seemed to wonder what was happening. For something that at first blush appeared as though it had the potential to be one of the most laughable so-called horror movies in awhile, Orphan turned out to be a fairly well made, if kind of droll, drama for an hour and a half. Only for its final half hour did it become that laughable horror movie.
Discounting that concluding portion, which does have one of the funniest played-for-serious moments in cinema history, there are entirely too many stunningly affecting performances in a movie that barely deserved one. Little James T. Kirk (Jimmy Bennett) as original son Danny is probably the weakest link, and clearly he has nothing to be ashamed of, being the cast member with the most credits this year. Aryana Engineer as original daughter Max, who is deaf, gives as amazing a child performance as you’re going to see, showing the fear and fealty of and to her new sister without being able to tell you about it in the overly precious or (worse) inappropriately mature way in which most child actors would be called upon. Isabelle Furhman’s Esther isn’t really creepy in the way she’s supposed to be, but it might be better this way because at least as far as demonic children go, she sneaks up on you. So it’s not so ridiculous that nobody sees it coming. Better yet, some do see it coming, but she’s so practiced it doesn’t matter. Best of all is Vera Farmiga as tortured mother Kate who is saddled with the unfair burden of being a struggling alcoholic adulturee with a clichéd passive-aggressive mother-in-law, in addition to serving as mother to a rebellious son and a daughter whose deafness is inarguably her fault. And that’s before she adopts a kid that wants to kill her. So that she gives maybe one of the best performances of the year through all of that ridiculousness is beyond remarkable. Her reaction to Esther’s condescending revelation that her piano lessons were taken out of pity (among other things) is absolutely incredible and leaves you wondering why she wasted it in this.
In the end though, once Esther tries to seduce her adoptive father (Peter Sarsgaard) and unbinds the adult(ish) body she’s (again, literally) been keeping under wraps (why she doesn’t switch the order of those events is beyond my comprehension) it turns into exactly the sort of fare you were expecting. It doesn’t matter as much by then, you count yourself lucky to have received what you did, but it’s still a little disappointing to wind up in that place when for so long it seemed as if perhaps it would be avoided.