The White Orchid (Steve Anderson, 2018): USA

Reviewed by Zaya Huntsinger. Viewed at the SBIFF 2018.

The film The White Orchid, was written and directed by Steve Anderson (This Lonely Place, The Big Empty). It was shown for the first time at the Santa Barbara International Film Festival. The story takes place in Morro Bay, California. With female detective Claire (Olivia Thirlby) as the lead, the audience watches her delve into the investigation of an unsolved murder that takes some intriguing turns. Thirlby plays a private investigator who becomes fascinated with solving the mysterious murder of a glamorous woman who went by the name Jessica.

At the time of the murder, the woman who called herself Jessica had been renting a house in the town of Morro Bay. Jessica is a mysterious woman whose layers continue to be revealed as the movie develops. The investigator and our protagonist, Claire is a intelligent, reserved woman. She puts her work and career over most personal affairs and it is evident at the beginning of the film that she hasn’t fully grown into her potential self. When the victim is first found, she is unidentifiable due to the deeply gruesome nature of the murder, because of this she was nicknamed The White Orchid; hence, the title of the film. Claire visits everywhere Jessica had been desperately looking for clues as to what might have happened. As she begins to research on the case, she becomes more and more intrigued and starts to uncover interesting layers of the mysterious woman “Jessica.”

Claire delves deeper into Jessica’s character as she becomes more and more intrigued by the many mysteries surrounding Jessica’s persona. With her newfound obsession, Claire slowly begins to become Jessica- this is seen in a scene where she puts on Jessica’s red lipstick and wears her wigs. The audience watches as Claire’s professional interest turns to passionate determination then to obsession until she eventually fully impersonates the identity of Jessica.

Claire’s persona shifts along with her interest in Jessica as she begins to dress up in her lingerie, heels and wear her wigs. Eventually, she fully takes the identity of Jessica and makes a visit to San Francisco where Jessica used to spend a lot of her time. As Jessica, she has a sexual experience with a woman she meets in a club. The same club that Jessica used to visit often. The idea of a character becoming obsessed with another character is not an unfamiliar one, and is seen in many other films. It reminded me slightly of Vertigo in this way. Clearly influenced from that time and genre of movies, The White Orchid is nowhere close to reaching their level of complexity or artistic portrayal. However, the movie had impressive cinematography done by Patrick Meade Jones with mood-changing close-ups and beautiful, surreal shots of Morro Bay. It also had a beautiful score by Enis Rotthoff to accentuate the dark mood. I found Olivia Thirlby to be more convincing as the plain detective, Claire than the intense and mysterious Jessica. John Carroll Lynch (Fargo) does a convincing job of playing the suspicious local sheriff, while Nichelle Nichols (Star Trek) played the role of a blind woman who knew Jessica. Her boss, Vivian is played by Jennifer Beals who does a nice job of evoking a feeling of authority and stature over Claire.

Overall The White Orchid was definitely entertaining yet possibly too twisty at times. It was very reminiscent of a classic crime mystery, with a modern hint. If you like crime movies and are not looking for an extraordinarily revolutionary film, this is the film for you. It questions identity and one’s looking-glass self. I suggest this film if you go into it not expecting to be blown away and just looking for an entertaining mystery story.

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