In which adopting a psychotic nine-year-old Russian orphan proves to be a bad idea.

07/24/2009 4:00 AM |

Directed by Jaume Collet-Serra

Kate and John Coleman (Vera Farmiga and Peter Sarsgaard) don’t do their family any favors when they choose to adopt a psychotic nine-year-old Russian orphan, but their home’s no Shangri-La as is. They already lost a previous daughter to negligence, and the dry-alcoholic Kate can’t sleep thanks to nightmares of gory botched childbirths (one of which constitutes the sickening opening scene). John had an affair years prior, and a petty passive aggression gives their marriage an edge, which little Esther (Isabelle Fuhrman) decidedly sharpens.

Using a bad seed horror template to explore the psychological failings of the “good” family members is nothing new, and was done effectively well as recently as 2007 in Joshua, also featuring Farmiga as the mother. Orphan opts for more loud shocks and bloody pigeon-smashings than the rather muted Joshua, but director Jaume Collet-Serra has a smart talent for crisp genre filmmaking, as he showed in 2005’s fun House of Wax (which was sold short by its marketing as a Paris Hilton vehicle). The buildup to Esther’s adoption is even touching, especially the wordless scene in which Kate explains to her deaf daughter that her real sister’s in heaven.

Once the elfin red menace starts raising hell, a parade-of-jolts repetition does set in, but it’s complicated by the audience’s sympathy for Kate’s personal torment. It’s odd, an a little insulting, how often the parents frankly discuss Esther and their thoughts of sending her away when she’s clearly in earshot, and the girl’s tactic of revealing her madness through blacklight paint (added to sweetly innocent oil and watercolor scenes) is a groaner. Orphan is still plenty better than it needs to be, as cheekily irresponsible as what seems to be its indefensible ultimate message: don’t adopt.

Opens July 24