'Orphan' Relishes Suspense Over Exploitation and Dread Over Abstract Terror

Warner Brothers Pictures

City Pulse | July 20, 2009
Orphan is a persuasive addition to the subgenre of bad-seed-horror films like The Omen where a creepy little kid wrecks havoc and murder on the lives of ill-equipped adults. The real child of hell here is nine-year-old Esther (Isabelle Fuhrman), a charming orphan of Russian descent whose induction into the wealthy family of John and Kate Coleman (Peter Sarsgaard and Vera Farmiga) allows for more than a few shocks of tragic violence and some very uncomfortable familial manipulation. Kate's recent miscarriage of a daughter inspires the couple to bring an adopted girl to join their 10-year-old son Daniel (Jimmy Bennett) and their hearing-impaired six-year-old daughter Max (Aryana Engineer). Kate is a recovering alcoholic whose drinking almost cost Max's life near their well appointed lakeside house. Despite Esther's polite demeanor and undeniable artistic gifts -- she paints expressive pictures and makes up captivating stories to go along with them -- a spate of bizarre events makes Kate suspect that Esther is a source of trouble. Director Jaume Collet-Serra redeems himself after his disastrous House of Wax with a genuinely scary movie ramped up by a truly inspired plot twist.

Special interests groups took issue with a clip from the film used in its original trailer where Esther provocatively says, "It must be hard to love an adopted child as much as your own." There's a considerable amount of irony to be had, since the child character herself makes the incendiary comment clearly intended to upset the adult object of her rhetoric. Esther, and consequently the screenwriter (David Leslie Johnson), hit the make like a knife through leather.

Warner Brothers was sensitive to the issue, and immediately re-edited the trailer to leave out the "offending" line. Emboldened by Warner's accountability, similar groups have gone one better to assert that their problem is with the premise of the film revolving around an orphan child, as if that topic should remain the sacred province of adoption agencies, would-be adoptive parents, and adoptive children. What this line of public debate reveals is a proclivity for some groups to create a bandwagon discussion abstracted from a dramatic form built on surprise elements such as evil children.

The film's trailer also announces, "There's something wrong with Esther," and "You'll never guess her secret." These quotes are closer to revealing the almost paranormal amount of disaster Esther incites upon taking up residence with the Coleman family. There's a refreshingly old fashioned quality to the look and style of the film that reflects back on great thrillers like The Bad Seed and the original Cape Fear. There's something uncontrollable and unpredictable about Esther, not the least of which are the black choker and wristbands she wears to cover scars from time spent in a straitjacket. As parents, Sarsgaard and Farmiga share verbal volleys that resonate with the way married couples talk. There's friendly sarcasm when they curse at one another in ending a discussing about how to address an incident where Esther walked in on them having sex.

The Colemans represent, rather than present, a realistic family. Their son Daniel looks at porno magazines in his tree house with his pals, and his little sister Max treats her hearing problem without a lick of self-consciousness. The threat that Esther soon leverages over the family also has an authentic ring to it because of Esther's uncanny ability to locate and play on the weakest nerve of each family member.

As modern horror movies go, Orphan relishes suspense over exploitation, and dread over abstract terror. It's not even a particularly gory horror movie, although there are a few shocks of blood and violence. Just as people all over the world marry or befriend individuals that turn out to be nightmare monsters of varying degrees, so too do people endure frightening situations with children, although it's mostly other children that suffer the effects of violent kids. There's an elegant twist in Orphan that transmogrifies the apparent text that the film's title implies. It's a kind of narrative coup that not only makes mute the complaints of groups who haven't seen the movie, but also functions as a bravura gesture of horror movie aplomb. Indeed, Esther is not at all what she seems.

(Warner Brothers) R. 120 mins. (B+) (Four Stars)
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