In Review: 'Loving Highsmith,' 'Orphan: First Kill'
A new documentary casts a mysterious author in a new light while a horror prequel depicts an old kid learning some new tricks.
Dir. Eva Vitija
It’s tempting to presume the character of an author is reflected in the tone of their work, particularly when the author encourages it. When told by an agent her characters were unlikeable, Highsmith is said to have responded “Perhaps it is because I don’t like anyone.” Highsmith novels like The Talented Mr. Ripley and Strangers on a Train pulse with horrific, remorselessly committed acts of violence, but it’s the cool, free-floating sense of misanthropy that make them so unsettling, a sense that extends beyond her often sociopathic characters. Highsmith was on record as being fond of cats and snails. People were another matter.
From the start Eva Vitija’s short but leisurely paced documentary Loving Highsmith announces itself as an attempt to correct that impression. “Like many other filmmakers I was originally drawn to Patricia Highsmith’s writing,” she notes in an early voiceover. “But when I started reading her unpublished diaries I fell in love with Highsmith herself.” The film then flits between testimonials from others who loved Highsmith (and knew her directly), from some surviving relatives in her native Texas to the women with whom Highsmith had affairs. Some of them anyway. As one notes, “She had a staggering amount of conquests.”
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After an early section filled with details of Highsmith’s early life including her difficult relationship with a hateful-sounding mother and experiences in the underground world of Manhattan gay bars, Vitija’s film becomes at times frustratingly vague about the timeline of Highsmith’s life built around interviews, shots of places Highsmith lived in or visited, and clips from the films adapted from her work. Once it’s covered major early novels like Strangers and The Price of Salt — Highsmith’s pseudonomsly published story of a lesbian romance and also the basis of Todd Haynes’ Carol — it’s not clear what she wrote or when, nor when affairs with women like YA and lesbian pulp fiction author Marijane Meaker and German artist and actress Tabea Blumenschein fell in her life.
Interviews with Meaker, Blumenschein and others do cast Highsmith in a softer light, as do the excerpts from her diaries (read by Gwendoline Christie). Highsmith was by no means tenderhearted (and she developed a pronounced racist streak in her later years). But she emerges as a woman driven by a need to be loved, even if she wasn’t wired to accept that love from anyone. “Writing, of course, is a substitute for the life I cannot live,” goes one diary entry. There’s a world of heartbreak in the “of course.” — Keith Phipps
Loving Highsmith opens at Film Forum in New York tomorrow before expanding to other cities.
Orphan: First Kill
Dir. William Brent Bell
The original 2009 Orphan is grade-A schlock—a horror thriller with far better direction (by Jaume Collet-Serra) and casting (Vera Farmiga and Peter Sarsgaard are the leads) than the norm for films of its ilk, plus one magnificently batshit twist. For a time, it follows the rules of a typical evil-child scenario, with Isabelle Fuhrman cast as Esther, a 9-year-old Russian girl adopted by a couple after the stillborn death of their third child. Turns out, though, that not only is this demented little monster not the pigtailed sweetie she appears to be, she’s not even a little girl at all. She’s actually a 33-year-old Estonian mental patient who has a rare hormonal disorder that causes proportional dwarfism, making her seem like she’s much younger than she is. And she’s been adopted by an unfortunate family before.
How do you top that twist? It’s taken 13 years for anyone to try, but damned if Orphan: First Kill, a supremely silly prequel, doesn’t pull it off. As zany origin stories go, it’s reminiscent of another prequel, the underrated Amityville II: The Possession, which one-upped the awful original Amityville Horror by pairing an Italian stylist, Damiano Damiani, with Tommy Lee Wallace, the screenwriter of Halloween III: Season of the Witch, for an unhinged story of incest and sacrilege. While Orphan: First Kill doesn’t have the advantage of riffing on a moribund predecessor, its creators understood that the job demands clearing a high bar for crazy, which inspires a go-for-broke pulp energy that’s appealingly ragged. If you can’t be grade-A schlock, it’s best to be grade-Z schlock.
Opening at the Saarne Institute in Estonia in 2007, two years before the events of the original film, Orphan: First Kill starts with Leena Klammer, a 31-year-old patient who looks much younger than her age, escaping in the car of an ill-fated art therapist. After logging on to an Estonian web browser, Leena does a search for missing American girls, finding one named “Esther” whom she uncannily resembles. Posing as this lost girl who’s been missing for four years, Leena fakes her way back to Esther’s wealthy family in Connecticut and tries to ingratiate herself to a philanthropist mother Tricia (Julie Stiles), her painter father Allen (Rossif Sutherland), and her snooty older brother Gunner (Matthew Finlan). The Russian accent gets explained away, but other discrepancies between the real Esther and this weird imposter start raising blood-red flags.
Through the magic of de-aging effects, Fuhrman—who was 12 at the time of filming the original Orphan—reprises the role of Esther, despite now being a 25-year-old playing a 31-year-old who passes herself off as a nine-year-old. But much of the fun in the early-going comes from how unconvincing Leena is at playing Esther. She’s not Tom Ripley. She hasn’t had the time to study Esther’s family beyond the basics, and she struggles to fake her way through dinner conversations or therapy sessions when she’s asked to call on memories she doesn’t have. This Esther also displays a proficiency in art, classical piano, and cooking that she didn’t possess as a five-year-old.
But just when Orphan: First Kill settles in as a macabre The Return of Martin Guerre, out goes the rug. The twist in the original Orphan arrives in the final act, as it’s headed toward the climax, but in First Kill it comes early enough to operate as more of a gearshift, catapulting the film in an entirely new and more exciting direction. Director William Brent Bell, who established his creepy-kid bonafides in The Boy and Brahms: The Boy II, doesn’t have Collet-Serra’s chops, but he gives First Kill the dingy, fog-choked luridness of an ‘80s slasher movie, and the screenplay and performances take care of the rest. It isn’t a scary film. It isn’t a particularly witty one, either. It is, however, a hoot. — Scott Tobias
Orphan: First Kill is currently streaming on Paramount+.
Alright, I’m intrigued. You gonna spoil it for us or do I need to do original research??