2 out of 5
Directed by: Jaume Collet-Serra
I bet this would be fun in a theater, with a horror movie audience – you know, it’s 2022, so COVID concerns aside – screaming at the screen during every dumb “don’t go in there” moment. Outside of that environment, though, it’s the ‘dumb’ that tends to shine through, which steamrolls over some great performances, an entertainingly leaned-into concept, and an initially patient hand from director Jaume Collet-Serra.
But the patience definitely starts to degrade pretty early: some odd edits and rather strange Checkov’s-gun type camera distractions are suggestive of a film that was strained to fit into its already-too-long 123-minute runtime, and a shot setup / lighting that’s almost Hitchcockian at points gives way to more workman-like proceedings; moving the movie along. Thankfully, the story actually assists by getting the ball rolling: Kate (Vera Farmiga) and John (Peter Sarsgaard) are ready to adopt a child, after the stillbirth of their last daughter, and end up going with 9 year-old Esther (Isabelle Fuhrman), whose quaint choice of dress and polite affectations just make their grieving-parent hearts go a’pitter-patter, but it’s really not so soon after the Esther’s brought to her new home that she starts making veiled threats, and glaring at people that do her wrong, and maybe some violence here and there, why not. In other words: Orphan doesn’t play at pretending like Esther might not be evil – it just goes with it. Which is – horror audiences being weird – where the fun comes in, and Collet-Serra, working off a script from David Leslie Johnson, indulge, providing lots of tense setups and making pretty great use of Kate and John’s house in which plenty of cat-and-mouse takes place, as well as the expansive, surrounding, snow-covered forest.
The story angles otherwise are mostly pretty typical – kid plays innocent to everyone except suspicious mom – but it feels like a miss that the two hours aren’t better used picking apart the gender dynamics on display in the couple’s marriage, which features an uncomfortable amount of gaslighting and blame-the-victim stuff that, even in 2009, should’ve been good territory for stronger exploration. Instead, we’re just leaning into stereotypes, and it feels unnecessarily manipulative on top of the predictable plotting.
Which is still fun, although a later plot element feels more like a backdoor out of story stakes as opposed to a worthwhile twist, and, as mentioned, this thing gets dumb, and then starts to pass the line into dumber. Stacked up with its other lesser-than qualities, and how its style slides from professional to make-a-buck pretty quickly, it ends up seeming like it would’ve been best experienced with that screaming horror audience, then forgotten about until an inevitable sequel.