As creepy-kid movies go, “Orphan” can’t be accused of underplaying its premise. This baby throws murder, adoption anxiety, maternal guilt and sibling rivalry into its bloody stew.
It might have the most determinedly malevolent tyke since the original “Omen” pictures, too. The horrible child in question is Esther (Isabelle Fuhrman), a Russian orphan adopted by Kate and John (Vera Farmiga and Peter Sarsgaard).
Kate and John have the requisite cool house and two kids already. Kate’s had drinking problems in the past and is haunted by the loss of a third child at birth.
Alas, where Esther goes, trouble follows. She seems like a prim girl with a weirdly formal fashion sense and a large vocabulary, but (as a classmate at school learns) she is not to be crossed.
Esther exerts her will over her adoptive siblings, and eventually Kate comes to suspect this little monster of evil intent. But when Kate starts babbling about Esther’s malevolent nature, she’s the one who sounds crazy.
Along with the scary-movie shocks, the movie’s a showcase for Vera Farmiga (“The Departed”), the gifted actress who plays Kate. Farmiga gives an intensely physical performance, shifting her body around as though it’s too sensitive to bear earthly issues. (She already played the mother in a demon-child picture, “Joshua,” which was much more interesting than this one.)
She and Sarsgaard are obviously too talented for the pulp shocks of “Orphan,” which ladles on the horror with a kind of unrepentant glee. Director Jaume Collet-Serra understands that there’s something uniquely unsettling about the depiction of violence committed by children, whether it’s against other children or against grown-ups.
Collet-Serra directed the Paris Hilton “House of Wax,” so he has some bad karma to make up for. “Orphan” won’t do it, although it is certainly relentless.
Nothing gets held back: Esther is a single-minded bad seed. She’ll shove her sister into the path of an oncoming car or commit bodily trauma against herself to implicate Kate, if it keeps her nefarious plan on track.
“Orphan” stretches out to 123 minutes, which is plenty of time to include a final-act twist. At that point, you’ll be rolling your eyes— mostly in exasperation, and also to be sure Esther isn’t standing behind you with a kitchen knife.