Starring: Vera Farmiga, Peter Sarsgaard, Isabelle Fuhrman
Rated: R for disturbing violent content, some sexuality and language
Running time: 123 minutes
Bottom line: Trash
Sitting through “Orphan” is like being forced, like Alex in “A Clockwork Orange,” to watch videos of child abuse. This is easily the worst film of the year, and it exploits child actors so shamelessly I can scarcely believe it’s legal. I’ve seen plenty of bad movies, but it’s a rare film that sends me into moral outrage.
Never have I wanted so badly to walk out of a movie I was there to review. But since I did trudge through it, let me fulfill my obligation and tell you about it.
John (Peter Sarsgaard) and Kate (Vera Farmiga) — pause while we laugh at the character’s names — have a 12-year-old son, Daniel (Jimmy Bennett), and 6-year-old, hearing-impaired daughter, Max (Aryana Engineer). They live in a beautiful house and seem like a normal family.
A few years ago, however, John and Kate lost their third child to a stillbirth. Kate already had a history of alcoholism, and the stillbirth sparked a relapse. Even though she’s been sober for a while now, Kate still has horrific dreams and a tattered psyche.
John, we learn early on, cheated on Kate (yes, I’m still referring to the movie, not the TV show), several years ago. It remains a source of tension, and the couple still struggles to rebuild trust and intimacy.
Beyond all logic, John and Kate decide to adopt another child into this dysfunctional mess, and the authorities allow them to do it.
But there’s no sense quibbling over plausibility in “Orphan,” because we’d have to comb long and hard through this movie to find a single believable moment.
Let’s make that abundantly clear: on the most basic levels of storytelling, suspense and general enjoyment, this is an awful, awful movie. I spent half of the movie trying to make sense of an endless string of nonsensical plot turns. (I gave up during the other half.)
But sloppy moviemaking is hardly this film’s worst offense. “Orphan” makes “The Exorcist” look like it was co-produced by Child Protective Services.
John and Kate meet and instantly connect with a 9-year orphan named Esther (Isabelle Fuhrman). Esther is polite and creative, speaks with a Russian accent and has had a difficult life. John and Kate quickly adopt Esther, and just as quickly Esther begins to provoke and manipulate her new family.
Things soon become downright disgusting as Esther reveals herself to be a calculating murderer. She pushes a classmate off the top of a slide. She points a gun at Max’s face and holds a knife to Daniel’s crotch, to ensure neither birth-child will rat her out. She smashes a character’s skull with a hammer. At various times she wields a gun, a knife and lighter fluid and a match.
It’s difficult enough to watch such scenes, but here’s the truly twisted part of “Orphan”: if we buy into it, we end up cheering for the rest of Esther’s adoptive family to kill her. Sure, the filmmakers concoct a hokey twist intended to make all this child violence acceptable, but it isn’t. It still urges us to root for a child to die a gruesome, vengeful death.
Sorry, but I won’t shrug off such representations of children and such uses of child actors as acceptable.
Scene after scene, we hope they won’t “go there,” that they won’t take the story in a certain direction or show a particular image.
That hope is never fulfilled, because “Orphan” is completely tasteless. They consistently go exactly where we fear they will.
The only laudable aspect of “Orphan” is Fuhrman’s performance. She is believably psychotic, maintains a Russian accent for two hours and scares us as much as any adult male heavy. It is a fearless performance that could set the stage for a stunning career.
Or, she could spend the rest of her life trying to shake her association with this movie. She could be headed for an Anthony Perkins future. And that is genuinely terrifying.
Jeff Marker is a media studies professor at Gainesville State College.