Teasingly enjoyable rubbish through the first hour, “Orphan” becomes genuine trash during its protracted second half. This “Bad Seed” rehash about an adopted Russian girl who deliberately foments mayhem in an upscale family is intent on getting a rise out of the audience and does so, but mostly in the wrong ways. Fine actors, fancy production values and attempts to invest horror with extra depth create a classy patina, and the ultimate “reveal” is a lulu not to be tipped off, but it’s all just too absurd to keep riding with it. Adoption advocates are justifiably fearful about pic’s possibly negative impact on their business, but Warner Bros. has little to fear from this eminently promotable item where its coffers are concerned.
For a while, it looks as though writer David Leslie Johnson, working from a story by Alex Mace, and director Jaume Collet-Serra, whose unnecessary 2005 “House of Wax” didn’t deny him a second shot with WB and producer Joel Silver, might actually be able to add a fresh layer of credible emotion and psychology to a predictable premise. Nightmarish opening depicts the feverish recollection by Kate Coleman (Vera Farmiga) of the stillborn birth of her third child, an event that soon leads to her decision to adopt a girl.
Kate has some issues, notably a drinking problem that prevented her from rescuing her little daughter Max (the adorable Aryana Engineer) from an accident that caused her to go deaf. Latter condition is worked into the story in a number of clever ways — much hinges on things that are overheard, lips that are read, signs that are picked up, or not — and is a key factor in the relationship the girl has with her mother and her new “sister.”
Kate and passively supportive husband John (Peter Sarsgaard), the source of whose obviously lucrative income is never mentioned, find their chosen one at an orphanage run by Sister Abigail (CCH Pounder), who can barely contain her surprise and delight at Esther (Isabelle Fuhrman) being taken off her hands. A prim, polite 9-year-old who paints well and speaks beautifully, albeit with a slight accent, the sallow-faced, black-haired Esther dresses like Little Bo Peep, carries a tattered Bible and warns, “I guess I’m different.” Like any good liberal mom, Kate replies, “Well, there’s nothing wrong with being different, you know.” Right.
Ensconced in the family’s Architectural Digest home on a hill (pic was shot in snowy Quebec), Esther makes an ally of little Max but is loathed by cusping adolescent son Daniel (Jimmy Bennett). By contrast, her attitude about John is ambiguous; the newcomer has an uncanny knack of turning up whenever the parents try to keep their sex life in gear, first (and hilariously) in the kitchen, then in bed, where the thunder-frightened girl sidles up against the naked man just moments after he’s been thunderclapping his wife.
Things go from weird to worse until something entirely untoward happens to sweet Sister Abigail. The percolating air of expectation and nervous humor gets sucked right out of the movie when the first act of explicit violence takes place, turning the film from a rollicking bit of leg-pulling to a grim exercise in methodically applied terror, as Esther goes on a carefully plotted rampage.
Although Kate, who becomes ostracized from her family for being the only one who believes the girl is evil, aggressively tries to unearth the little devil’s birth and early life records, Esther’s dirty secret is well kept until the big moment, which ranks with “The Crying Game” in its surprise quotient. This juices the film for a few minutes, but then follow not one, not two but three battles to the death, each more preposterous than the last. It’s also one of those movies in which a revolver is fired seven times.
Through it all, the cast members perform heroically, as if believing they’re actually in a good film. Farmiga expresses a hundred nuances of love, rage, self-confidence and doubt as the beleaguered wife and mother, while Sarsgaard smoothly invests the outwardly mild husband with hints of a very slippery character. All three kids are terrific. Fuhrman makes Esther calmly beyond reproach even when faced with monumental evidence against her, and has the requisite great evil eye. Bennett is highly sympathetic as the encroached-upon boy who picks up on Esther’s bad vibes long before anyone else, while Engineer is a dream.
Tech credits are strong, and John Ottman’s off-center score helps significantly in creating a sense of unease.