Friday, December 28, 2007

"The Orphanage" -- * * * 1/2

J.A. Bayona's "The Orphanage" (initially released as "El Orfanato" in Spain) is an extremely effective, often very scary ghost story that shows a remarkable level of restraint and packs a surprising resonance. There are dozens of moments where a certain level of tension or creepiness or dread builds up, but Bayona never goes for the easy payoff and more often than not lets these moments be their own entity and not merely a build-up to a boo scare. In fact, Bayona offers very few "jump!" moments, and instead prefers to make you uneasy. While this is rare for a film of this genre, what's even more astonishing about "The Orphanage" is how substantive and heartbreaking it is. Throughout, we're always caught up with our main character's struggle, and both the screenplay and the lead performance render this an incredibly moving work that, for all its frightening moments, it would never occur to me to brand a "horror movie." Bearing strong similarities to both "The Others" and "Dark Water" (of which I seem to be a lone fan), "The Orphanage" will not, I repeat, will NOT, play to the "Saw" and "Hostel" crowd, but will perhaps find support among those who like their genre films with some weight to them. It's the rare scary film whose scares exist to service the story and never feel undeserved.

Rather effectively setting up what's to come, the film opens with a sequence of a group of children at an orphanage playing a game outdoors that appears to be very similar to "Red Light, Green Light, 1-2-3."Soon after, one of the orphans, Laura, is picked up by her adoptive parents and taken away from the other kids at the orphanage. Now, about 30 years later, Laura (Belen Rueda) returns with her husband Carlos (Fernando Cayo) and their young son Simón (Roger Princep) to buy the orphanage and turn it into a home for disabled/sick children. While she has relatively happy memories of her time there, she begins to become haunted by thoughts of what happens to the orphans she left behind when she was adopted. She's also disconcerted by Simón's creation of imaginary friends who he seems to play with non-stop. When showing Laura drawings of his friends, Laura disturbingly recognizes one of the images-- a child with a specifically-designed sack over his head-- from her memories, wondering if Simón's friends are really imaginary after all. When a creepy social worker (Montserrat Carulla) shows up to reveal to us that Simón is adopted and HIV-positive, things take significant turns for the worse. I think this is a story where surprise is key, so I won't reveal much more, just to say that a disappearance, a supernatural medium and numerous scares and revelations are to come.

The marketing for "The Orphanage" has been exploiting the horror element as best they can, with a lot of emphasis on screaming, ominous dark rooms and a scary voiceover guy. This tactic may get butts in seats opening weekend, but they'll be the "wrong" butts, and create poisonous word-of-mouth if all the audience wants is cheap scares. There are certainly frights to be had here, but not enough to justify being sold as a horror film. This is ultimately a psychological film about the ghosts we all grapple with, not just a in-and-out entertainment you can just completely disengage from. In other words, if you went in knowing this was a psychological ghost story or an eerie character study, you might be caught off guard by just how scary it is; but when you're going to see it because of the ads telling you how its one of the scariest movies ever made or "You'll have to calm yourself by saying its only a movie," that's all you'll be looking for and might find the movie coming up short in that department. I left completely satisfied, but that's because I was pleasantly surprised at how much there was to the film. The other facet of the marketing has been touting the film as "presented" by Guillermo Del Toro, who serves as producer and whose "Pan's Labyrinth" last year (my #1 of 2007) grossed a surprising $37 million in the U.S. alone. This aspect of marketing is far less deceptive. Without revealing too much, "The Orphanage" has numerous thematic similarities, and while it manages to carve out its own significant and original identitiy, it would make for a great double feature.

This is a really terrific debut by Juan Antonio Bayona, who shows with his direction here that he's a talent to be reckoned with. While he may resist it, it's only a matter of time before the American studios snatch him up, much as they did with Del Toro. Not only is every shot framed immaculately, he maintains a strong hold on the multi-layered, complex narrative and handles the balance of scary and emotional extremely well. And (until the final scene or so), everything is handled extremely subtly, wringing the maximum reaction out of just little hints and suggestions. The more jarring, obvious scary moments, such as a jolting auto accident and the slamming of a door, are so wonderfully staged they feel fresh and, unlike "I Am Legend" which just numbed you with its nonstop jumps, there are a handful of moments here that I defy any audience member to not be shaken by.; a chilling poltergeist exorcism sequence with the medium (Geraldine Chaplin) is amazingly tense but doesn't conventionally "pay off" with a big scare. But when Laura has more tender, vulnerable moments with Simón or... let's just say, others, it's as touching as can be, and Bayona directs in such an effectively non-obtrusive way that numerous viewers may find them shedding tears unexpectedly.

But I'd be remiss to underscore the power of Rueda's mesmerizing, emotionally wrenching performance as Laura. Also excellent in "The Sea Inside," Rueda is in almost every frame here, and has to play such a wide range of emotions without ever allowing herself to go for the obvious or over the top. She keeps every emotion in check, while exuding a strong sense of feeling through her eyes, and utilizing every line of dialogue for all its worth. As a woman in turmoil who doesn't quite know if she's going crazy or if the world around her is, Rueda delivers a devastating, emotionally complex performance that never really goes in the direction you'd expect.

Easily deserving a nomination for Best Foreign Film, "The Orphanage" is a rare sort of film, one that can just as effortlessly scare the shit out of you as make you cry. On top of which, it never allows things to get simple enough where you can draw an easy conclusion, even once its over. People can absolutely view aspects about it as definitive, but it could just as easily provoke conversation for hours afterwards. I don't know if the people who may actually appreciate the film are actually going to go see it, but it's an extremely well-crafted, entertaining genre piece that made me wish that American films of this nature had this much intelligence and respect for their audience. An often terrifying, frequently moving ghost story, "The Orphanage" arrives at seemingly the last second of 2007 to deliver goods that have gone mostly unseen in cinema as of late.

"The Orphanage" opens today in limited release in 19 theaters, expands to 69 theaters in major markets on January 4th, and opens on 500 screens nationwide January 11th.


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