Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Naughty, Naughty Orphan

(Any specific analysis of major plot points in this film can only lead to spoilers, and the less you know about what happens, the closer you might get to my enjoyment of the film, so I’m going to be very brief.)

It’s an oft-depicted tale: parents give birth to or adopt the child from hell. I suppose many parents can identify with that scenario since they suffer the anxiety of wondering whether or not Junior is going turn out all right – or turn out to be “a child of spleen,” as Shakespeare refers to daughter Goneril in King Lear. As for this version of the old story, it’s a gruesome one, and it’s a silly one in many ways, and elements of it are bad, but it’s ultimately a horrifying movie - so that means it's good. Let’s take a look at how good and how bad.

It’s as bad as all the horror movie clichés piled one on top of the other: the dark and stormy night; the sudden blasts of soundtrack that are more startling than what you actually see; the Internet search for information (I love how you can Google the answers to any sinister mystery); the dark-eyed girl with the mysterious past.

It’s as good as Vera Farmiga convincingly portraying Kate Coleman’s inner torment: her grief over losing a baby; her struggle with alcoholism; her guilt regarding her daughter’s near drowning; her suspicions of her adopted daughter; her frustration when no one will believe her.

It’s as bad as Kate grieving over a dead baby, struggling with alcoholism, carrying guilt regarding the near drowning of her daughter, and she wants to adopt a child!?

It’s as good as the wonderful performance of five-year-old Aryana Engineer (hearing impaired in real life) playing Max Coleman, Kate’s hearing impaired daughter who observes the rapidly developing treachery from within her silent world and suffers in silence as she comes under the sinister control of the creepy Esther.

It’s as bad as Isabelle Fuhrman as Esther giving classmates the evil eye and sidling up affectionately to her “Daddy” and mouthing affections in a stilted Russian accent while Peter Sarsgaard as John Coleman whines drunkenly in one of his worst performances.

It’s as good as Isabelle Fuhrman as Esther saying to Max in that Russian accent, “Grab a foot and help me drag the body out of the road.”

It’s as bad as Margo Martindale as a clueless psychiatrist who can’t see through Esther’s obviously false façade and who too easily jumps to the conclusion that Kate has lost her marbles.

It’s as good as the film’s nondescript location with its atmosphere of slushy gray snow and leafless trees. Moreover, it’s as good as its unrelentingly suspenseful and horrifying ending.


Ed Howard said...

Great summation of what's good and bad in this weird little film. I have to say, I quite enjoyed it as well, despite all the silly and annoying things you note. Sarsgaard was awful, and his character way too stupid to live. And the stupid jump-scares with accompanying soundtrack were especially obvious in a film that otherwise relied on mood-setting and subtle creepiness to sell its horror. (I did like the scene where the usual horror movie soundtrack was applied to a scene in which a little girl wanders, not through a darkened basement or haunted house, but a brightly lit playground jungle gym in the middle of the day.)

Mostly, what I enjoyed about the film was the mood: the quiet, carefully paced opening in which we get a sense for the mother's grief and tormented past, then the slowly escalating horror as it becomes more and more apparent that the new adopted daughter is some kind of creepy demonspawn. The much-vaunted twist was kind of awesome in an over-the-top way, but in some ways I wish Esther had just been an ordinary but especially sadistic little girl. Maybe it's just me, but that would've made the film even creepier: no explanations, no sudden revelations, just the fact that this cute, superficially charming little girl is in fact a murderous, foul-mouthed little monster.

Richard Bellamy said...

Thanks! Love your description of the "foul-mouthed little monster." I liked the big surprise ending. It explained a lot, though I can see what you say about the effect of the ending you wished for. Still, the ending made me cringe - in a good horror-move sense - throughout. Great build-up - starting with the shot of the knife - and then it comes clear that she has used it to cut up munchies for Daddy. Yes, and the movement of the girl through the playground is excellent. As you say, it is "a weird little film," but I'm a fan of weird little films that ultimately work, and this one does.

The Film Doctor said...

Interesting review, although I was left with some questions. I wonder if Sarsgaard's weak scene was partially the fault of the writing. Suddenly drunk, he has to take awhile to wake up to what's going on to heighten the scene's effect, but it doesn't work all that well. Also, doesn't the film clearly set up a reason for Kate to want to adopt a child, so she can make up for her loss? Also, isn't the psychiatrist's decision justified because of Kate's problematic history? I liked the way the filmmakers heightened the basic conflict between Kate and Esther by undermining Kate's credibility in advance.

Richard Bellamy said...

Thanks for the comment. Your points are definitely arguable. I'm probably being hard on it and Sarsgaard's performance somewhat. Nevertheless, I liked the movie - and the details that didn't seem realistic (Esther's facility with a gun; the way she comes on to Daddy) were bugging me as the film played - but then the ending, of course, explains everything. As for the psychiatrist - right, Kate's past history is contrived to be stacked against her - but I thought a shrink who had so much experience with Kate might be able to perceive when Kate was telling the truth.

Jason Bellamy said...

This was a fun review of a movie that I won't see. (Scary movies just aren't my thing. Especially cliche scary movies ... and that's most of them.)

On Sarsgaard ... I'm almost enticed to buy a ticket based on Ed's line that his character is "way too stupid to live." He really seems hit or miss. He did his best to ruin Elegy for me. At least he gave us this.

Richard Bellamy said...

Yeah, Ed's line made me chuckle because when Daddy gets it, I was glad; thematically, it works out too because he lost his faith in Kate. Oh, you can have all sorts of fun with this movie. I wasn't sure I liked the thing until Esther said, "Grrrab a foot and help me drrrag the body out of the rrroad." It was one of those good/bad movies I was glad I saw.

Ed Howard said...

Yeah, I mean I wouldn't actually discourage anyone from seeing this. It wasn't a "good" movie, but it was fun as hell.

And though the line Hokahey cites was truly great, the movie had me even earlier, with: "I know. They fuck."

Richard Bellamy said...

You know, Ed, I was going to quote that one in my review. That was hilarious. But at the same time that added to Esther's creepiness, and part of the fun was hanging in there to find out what caused Esther to be the way she is. Of course, one of the cruelest things she does is the flowers! You're making me want to see this again!

Fox said...

I think you do a fine job here, Hokahey. I'm 50% in can for liking this movie, so you know what that makes the other 50%.

I think Farmiga and Furhman are so strong that I didn't really pay too much mind to how poor Saarsgard indeed is. He couldn't even convincingly act like the clueless dad that can't see even an inkling of how evil his adopted daughter is.

Call me sappy if you will, but I would have liked to see mother and daughter back at the hospital with son. I at least wanted that resolve. Oh well. It's much better than The Collector. I'll say that.

Richard Bellamy said...

Thanks, Fox. I saw your post, and I really appreciated your comments about Fuhrman. She takes on a really tough role. Her Russian accent is probably very well done; I just enjoyed the campy side of it - because we don't usually expect the evil child to have a Russian accent. She delivers difficult lines: "I know. They fuck," convincingly. She must be pretty intense in real life.

My post points out the good and the bad, but the more I comment on this movie, the more I realize that I'm more in the range of 60 (positive)/40 in my opinion of it.

Funny thing about the boy - he is mean to his adopted sister right from the beginning and he's exposed as kind of wimpy (won't kill the pigeon), so the way he is presented kind of turned off my sympathies toward him. He deserved to survive, but I didn't need to see him all cheerful and relieved.