31 Days of Hell: Orphan

There’s something wrong with Esther.  And probably everybody else in this movie.

The movie Orphan is something I can only describe as a quandary. Parts of it are marvelously crafted, others not so much.  Yet, for all of its divisive qualities that would make many see it as a mixed bag, I still find it to be an enjoyable tale of suspense, mistrust and some very selfish people getting what they deserve at the hands of a sadistic, cruel and manipulative little girl who is definitely not who she seems.  It is a film that paints a very elaborate picture of a highly dysfunctional family and how easy it can be for someone to come along and unravel it if they so desire.  It also manages to take a turn into some very daring cinematic territory despite its R rating and mainstream theatrical release.

"Oh, this will make a great
First World Problems image
for my tumblr blog."
Kate Coleman (Vera Farmiga) is the well-meaning but somewhat melancholic mother of two (and a deceased third that plentiful exposition during the first half of the movie will repeatedly remind you), and spends her days indulging in her craft – classical piano.  Her problems are many yet it is difficult to sympathize with her – she is a recovering alcoholic in a marriage that the phrase “on the ropes” can only begin to describe.  She feels deep-seated guilt over the loss of her third child, whom she lost to a miscarriage (presumably due to her alcoholism, or perhaps it was what drove her to it).  Her husband, architect John Coleman (Peter Sarsgaard), is the classic suspense thriller ignoramus, blindly trusting the film’s antagonist while taking every incident as a reason to further doubt his own wife.  At some point in the past he cheated on Kate, an act that she certainly does not let him live down.  John and Kate live in a beautiful and sprawling house, and are the perfect picture of suburban decadence with no appreciation for what they have.  Their two children, Daniel (Jimmy Bennett) and Maxine (Aryana Engineer) further complicate things – Daniel is generally a distant, disinterested brat who seems to have gotten the memo about teenage rebellion a few years early, while Maxine, much younger than Daniel, is deaf and mute, something which places strain on the family’s ability to communicate but leads her parents to favor her, which Daniel resents and makes little effort to conceal.  Kate feels an emptiness left by her deceased third child, and as a result she and John have been considering adopting one, as though bringing another young person to raise into their already volatile and somewhat toxic household will make things better or distract them from their grievances with each other enough to save a marriage that clearly is not worth such an effort.

Thus enters Esther (Isabelle Fuhrman), who is not only the movie’s centerpiece character but one of the most interesting antagonists I can recall seeing in a suspense thriller.  A chance encounter between her and John during the couple’s visit to the local Catholic orphanage eventually results in her adoption as she makes a great first impression on the two.  At first glance, Esther is an ideal child, a treasure hidden among the many deserving occupants of her orphanage – she acts surprisingly mature for her age, is very composed, artistic, creative and intelligent.  Having come over to the United States from a Russian orphanage at some point in the past, it is implied that she has experienced many hardships in her life at such a young age.  She quickly picks up basic sign language so as to endear herself to Max, who will become an unfortunate pawn in the cruel campaign she will eventually wreak upon her adoptive family.  At first all is well, with Esther seeming to integrate well into the Colemans’ household, but over time the cracks start to emerge – pieces of her background don’t quite add up, she seems to know things that a child should not, and occasionally exhibits antisocial or violent behavior when the parents aren’t looking.  All the while, she manipulates the unwitting, gullible John with her apparent sweetness, which she uses extensively to push Kate’s buttons and expose her insecurities so she can drive the wedge further into an already fractured family. 

"If I had a black light, this place
would look like a Jackson Pollock
Esther clashes frequently with Daniel, who spurns her initial attempts to make nice with him – he is put off by her odd mannerisms, Eastern European accent, and for her preference for traditional-looking clothing that is at least 100 years out of date.  His friends, a group of nameless stock middle-schoolers, tease him at several points about her, leading him to lash out against his family for adopting her.  However, when the rivalry between the two adoptive siblings intensifies, Daniel finds himself quickly out of depth and unable to match wits with her.  Meanwhile, Esther manages to walk a fine line between retaining the innocent young Max’s loyalty by trust and fear, and uses her several times in various schemes to upset Kate, which Esther uses to devastating effect to further increase John’s distrust in his wife and further endear him to her instead.

All in all, Orphan is worth watching at least once if you have any love for suspense thrillers.  While it may not be up to the bar set by such masters of suspense as Alfred Hitchcock, it certainly aspires to be and is far enough outside the norms of the typical “evil child” subgenre of horror/thriller movies to be a breath of fresh air. Much of the movie is very well-made; the shots are interesting and well-executed, and the wintery landscape of the film’s setting adds an air of solemnity and desolation to its mood that also manages to be austere.  While the movie checks in at a solid 2 hour run time, it does not feel like any of the time is wasted – each scene is a piece of an elaborate and thoughtful puzzle that illustrates exactly how much a sinking ship the Coleman family is.  The most praise, however, should go to Isabelle Furhman’s performance – she handles the role of a villain with surprising aptitude and nuance, and the movie definitely would not be the same without her.  Despite her clearly ill intent for her family that eventually emerges, her motives may surprise you, and you may find yourself rooting for her at times – the Colemans are fundamentally very selfish, taking their lavish home and each other for granted (except for Max, the only truly innocent character of the entire drama), and it is almost fun watching Esther dismantle their trust for each other…at least until her true reasons for doing so emerge.  What you may find may be most unsettling, but it is something you won’t soon forget.

-Doug Meese