(I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: Bruce Willis is already dead.)
The horror import The Orphanage has one indelible image, and that’s plenty. It also has a sly current of grief and healing that hits home mostly on reflection, after cold recognitions and resonances sink in.
Directed by Spaniard J.A. Bayona and written by Sergio G. Sánchez, The Orphanage arrived in the United States under the banner of producer Guillermo del Toro, and it suffers from the expectations that name carries. Del Toro’s Spanish-language films are compact, textured, and rich with meaning. Cronos (1993) is an alluring, lethal metaphor-dispensing machine, while Pan’s Labyrinth (2006) has the ageless authenticity of a folk tale, among its many other merits. The Devil’s Backbone (2001) most closely resembles The Orphanage in his oeuvre, but with so much attention paid to milieu — physical, social, historical — it transcends its obvious genre; its spectral elements become nearly secondary.
Bayona’s movie is merely a good ghost story, which is no small thing, but it ain’t Guillermo del Toro. While the acclaimed Mexican writer/director is fundamentally a symbolist, The Orphanage approaches its story through the emotional prism of its lead character.
Laura (Belén Rueda) returns to the orphanage of her youth with her husband Carlos and son Simón, with the goal of fixing up the place as a home for children with illnesses and disabilities. Simón claims to have met some new invisible friends, including Tomás.
At an open-house party for prospective clients, Simón disappears, and it is here that the audience gets that indelible image, its first view of Tomás — a sack over his head with a crude face stitched on it, like a scarecrow. He is standing dead still in the midst of all this activity.
Even though the movie cuts to an unnecessary closeup, it’s still a moment of visceral wrongness. The costume itself is not scary, but combined with a child’s stature and prim clothing, it creates an upsetting dissonance, and it begs the question: What is so horrible that it had to be hidden? (I should mention here that Dark Night of the Scarecrow haunted me as a child, so I think I’m predisposed to find agricultural protections against avians [Roy Bolger excepted] distressing.) The boy is robbed by the mask of his humanity, altering both his behavior and the behavior of people toward him. Tomás appears to be malevolent, slamming a door on Laura’s hand and locking her in a bathroom, and he must be related to Simón’s disappearance.
Simón is nowhere to be found — dead or alive — and here The Orphanage fast-forwards and runs into trouble. While there is marital tension between Laura and Carlos because of her insistence that Simón is still alive, his patience with her over such a long period of time strains credulity in light of his spiritual skepticism.
That’s done for efficiency’s sake, but other narrative curiosities feel merely lazy. Most of the backstory is delivered by and alongside ridiculous, artfully artless “home movies” that get not a single detail right. (The child inspires such shame that a bag is put over his head, yet somebody shot footage of him?) On this point, I wonder how The Orphanage would have played if this expository section had been removed — if an old lady’s link to the institution were left a tantalizing dead end instead of being used to explain everything. I suspect the effect would have been immeasurably more unsettling.
More elegant exposition comes when Laura brings in a medium and some Ghost Hunters-style equipment. This section serves three purposes: It unobtrusively fills in some of the blanks about what happened at the orphanage after Laura was adopted; it gooses the audience’s attention as we try to see and hear what’s happening through the technological filter of the equipment, as we’re denied direct access to the medium; and it underscores the (underdeveloped) conflict between Laura and Carlos. What she witnesses that night confirms for her that the orphanage is haunted, and that Simón could still be alive; Carlos smells a scam.
There’s a conceptual twist to The Orphanage in the way it plays off our expectations in the ghost tale, employing an unreliable narrator and suggesting that she’s too grief-stricken (and too scared) to consider a rational alternative — that some commonplace accident took Simón. We’ve been conditioned to expect that the hauntings were all in her head, or that her convictions will be validated by the final shot: independent proof of the supernatural. We expect the movie to ultimately cast its lot with Laura or Carlos.
In the end, Sánchez’s script ties the two together in a conclusion that’s equal parts horrifying, heartbreaking, and warm. The climactic revelations hint strongly that it was an angry Simón — rather than an apparition — who crushed Laura’s fingers before locking the door, taunting her with the bathroom key in a chillingly un-child-like way. (His innocence fell away when he learned about his illness.) The discovery of Simón’s body is a restoration of logic and common sense and Occam’s razor, but The Orphanage doesn’t then repudiate the supernatural; it embraces it.
As the mother clinging to unreasonable hope, Rueda navigates tricky terrain. She must be unhinged, yet not so crazy that she can’t absorb and accept grim reality when she finds it. And still the horrific knowledge does not deter her core belief in the spiritual. In her final moments, she must accept that she was both right and wrong about what happened to Simón, and give herself to the children.
It’s a lovely touch when Tomás is no different from any of the other kids as they gather before Laura. There is no evil here — a confirmation that fear was unwarranted. All of these children are damaged. Simón had AIDS. Tomás was disfigured. And the other kids were, obviously, orphans.
The movie serves almost as a lament for lost children, reinforced by references to Peter Pan. (And, yes, there are people who believe that Peter Pan and the Lost Boys are dead, which is why they don’t/won’t/can’t grow up.) That Laura accepts the Wendy role in the afterlife is natural, narratively correct, and quietly poignant. These kids need a mother, and she needs them.