We gave it an A-
Grief drives a quartet of adult siblings to riotous discombobulation on the night before their mother’s funeral in the acidly funny Scottish feature Orphans. Coldly pious brother Thomas (Gary Lewis) gets heckled while warbling a dirgelike love song at a local pub. A fight breaks out, during which a brawler knifes laconically circumspect brother Michael (Douglas Henshall) in the gut. (Bleeding badly, Michael opts not to go to the hospital until the next day, when he can claim he was in a factory accident and demand workers’ compensation.) Dangerously hotheaded brother John (Stephen McCole), enraged by the assault, takes off in search of a gun to kill Michael’s attacker. Thomas, meanwhile, repairs to church to keep company with Ma’s casket, which bores stubborn, mentally and physically challenged sister Sheila (Rosemarie Stevenson) so much, she’d rather roll her wheelchair out into the night and count on strangers.
Things only get worse as psyches unravel and the heavens roar. Orphans, made in 1997, is the feature debut of muscular Scottish actor Peter Mullan, and there’s a through-line between the blunt, iconoclastic characters he often plays (in films like My Name Is Joe, Miss Julie, and Trainspotting) and this bracing satire, which is simultaneously merciless to cant and merciful to sufferers. The most shocking and spectacular snafus (some as lewd as anything from the Farrelly brothers, others as dizzyingly inevitable as anything in Scorsese’s After Hours) are handled with a fine absence of self-delight; Mullan barrels ahead without overemphasizing the excellent performances, most notably by Lewis as the horridly devout prig and Henshall as the infuriatingly passive mope.
Which is as it should be. Real mourning and real recklessness often go hand in hand, and Mullan, a natural filmmaker, has the confidence to treat the attention-getting dramatic possibilities of deep distress with just the dour straightforwardness such extremity requires. A-