So often, we go into a movie knowing full well what we will think when we leave. In an age where no trailer, poster, TV spot, or interview goes unseen, the actual event of seeing the movie seems like a formality- we’ve already made up our minds. Sometimes though (and horror is especially predisposed towards this) we experience the rare treat of a film that surprises or shocks us. Orphan is one of those films.
The first thing that is important to understand about Orphan is that it has little in common with The Omen or any other films about demonically, ghostly, or otherwise supernaturally inclined children. There are no supernatural elements to this film. Instead the story deals with a child that is quite simply a psychopath. Without the presence of unusual special effects, strange make-up, mysterious powers, or satanic involvement this child is allowed to be scary all on her own. It is this that gives the film it’s visceral power, but as good as the villain is (and we will get back to her) the true backbone of this film is Kate Coleman, the mother character who is fucking owned by Vera Farmiga. Kate is truly troubled; as complex and layered a protagonist as is ever seen in horror. Her husband John, dutifully played by an increasingly young-John-Malkovich-like Peter Sarsgaard, is a thinner character, but this is decidedly Kate’s show. We are watching a film about a 9-year-old killer after all, and it takes a truly impressive performance (along with an exceedingly smart script) to ground it, and keep it from going off the rails.
The movie wastes no time with stock scenes of chipper-wealthy-white-family, blissfully unaware of it’s impending doom… rather it brutally shoves us inside a flashback of the stillbirth of Kate’s third child. This is a real event -the resulting loss will visibly weigh on this character- but we see it as Kate’s hellishly grotesque nightmare; a dream that has been relived and warped into something tortuously ugly. Such an opening, so raw before the scary little orphan ever arrives, sets a psychologically dark tone for the film- a bold move when a nine-year-old Russian girl will soon be killing people.
Esther enters the picture in much the way you would expect- she is disconcertingly charming during the adoption visit and ends up going home with the family, amidst vaguely troubling looks from the staff. It is here, in the most obvious bit of plotting the story must cover, that Orphan is so strong. Every note is hit squarely and poignantly- the first well-played scene with Esther, the trip home, the introduction to the children, to schoolmates- there is a truth to these scenes that works incredibly well. An especially lovely moment as Kate reads and signs a bedtime story to her daughter Max (who is deaf from an accident when she was younger), is played silently. Complete silence (no atmosphere tone, no sound at all) is a rare thing to experience in a movie, but it points the focus on Kate and everything she’s feeling. The same care is taken with the son Daniel’s rejection of the new sibling, the father’s fawning, the daughter’s infatuation with her new big sister, the strangely dressed Esther’s first day at school…. it is all handled with remarkable class and honesty.
Esther herself (Isabelle Fuhrman) is a fairly remarkable villain, and we are clued in very early that we are not witnessing a hapless child manipulated by malevolent forces. Rather, a cold, chillingly mature young criminal is at work, and her charm and intellect make her psychopathy more disturbing. Her first act, an incident on the playground that leaves a girl with a broken leg, is certainly cruel but nothing that a run-of-the-mill troubled child couldn’t commit. Not long after though, as the first implications that she may have a darker past are emerging, Esther truly shocks with an act so brutal and –forgive the silly term– gangster, that one’s jaw can’t help but drop a little. Esther’s brutality is equally paired with her devious quest to isolate her new mother from the rest of the family. Esther’s antagonism isn’t simple manipulation, it is deliberate use of the guilt, shame, loss, and anger that plague Kate, and it is terrible to witness. As Esther becomes bolder in her attempts to sabotage Kate, Vera Farmiga truly shines. A scene involving a bouquet of roses contains what might be the most heart-breakingly performed moment of the year.
Orphan has guts, and the farther it goes with Esther, the darker the territory becomes. Fuhrman, an unknown twelve-year-old actress, does a remarkable job of selling a character whose darkness and very nature are tough to swallow, but she is well supported by the film’s visual touches*. The film takes this child deadly serious, so scenes sometimes walk a fine line that edges towards camp. Some viewers may not be sold on the balance of the more extreme moments with Esther, and the more human moments throughout the film. It is a rewarding experience for those that do.
Jaume Collet-Serra, who debuted with the House of Wax remake, has crafted a strong film that is willing to bring horror from all angles- scares, brutality, psychological horror, and even moral discomfort. The film doesn’t settle on any single tactic or overused technique, choosing instead to set-up obvious conventions (mirror reveals, knives-hidden-behind-the-back, pursuer-point-of-view shots) and leave them hanging, fulfilling only the more subtle set-ups**. There is a twist, but it’s earned and exploited interestingly, adding momentum to a traditionally set-up but satisfyingly-handled climax.
Orphan is a film with a strong backbone, two great big balls, and –most importantly– more than half of a brain. 2009 has not been particularly great for horror,*** so for a movie so dedicated to disturbing us to do so without sacrificing complexity or dimension is a wonderful thing. Perhaps Orphan is a film that benefits from diminished expectations. Perhaps it will diminish with time and repeated viewings. There are elements though, that feel genuinely strong and thought-out, elements that push it farther than the typical polished horror flick. Orphan represents the best of what slick, refined, big-budget Hollywood horror films can be, and is not to be dismissed.
*You’ll notice the studio logos at the beginning of the film flicker
with neon blue and pink splatters, and when this is paid-off later in
the movie, it is quite a moment.
** Perhaps Collet-Serra’s meta-wink to a post-Funny Games horror world? I might be pushing it.
*** Is there a standout besides Drag Me To Hell? Before Orphan, my favorite horror sequence of the year was from a stop-motion child’s film for chrissakes.