An 'Orphan' With Issues (And A Big, Bad Secret)

Isabelle Fuhrman in 'Orphan' i i

Bad Seed: Isabelle Fuhrman is destined for a place in Hollywood's Evil Child pantheon for her outrageous embodiment of homicidal orphan Esther. Warner Bros. Pictures hide caption

itoggle caption Warner Bros. Pictures
Isabelle Fuhrman in 'Orphan'

Bad Seed: Isabelle Fuhrman is destined for a place in Hollywood's Evil Child pantheon for her outrageous embodiment of homicidal orphan Esther.

Warner Bros. Pictures

Orphan

  • Director: Jaume Collet-Serra
  • Genre: Horror
  • Running Time: 123 minutes

Rated R: Disturbing violent content, some sexuality and language

With: Vera Farmiga, Peter Sarsgaard, Isabelle Fuhrman

Peter Sarsgaard and Vera Farmiga in 'Orphan' i i

Mommy Issues: Guilt-wracked over a lost child, Kate (Vera Farmiga) longs for a larger brood. Warner Bros. Pictures hide caption

itoggle caption Warner Bros. Pictures
Peter Sarsgaard and Vera Farmiga in 'Orphan'

Mommy Issues: Guilt-wracked over a lost child, Kate (Vera Farmiga) longs for a larger brood.

Warner Bros. Pictures
Vera Farmiga, Aryana Engineer, Jimmy Bennett, Peter Sarsgaard and Isabelle Fuhrman in 'Orphan' i i

Clan Warfare: Max (Aryana Engineer), Daniel (Jimmy Bennett), John (Peter Sarsgaard), Kate and Esther make one big happy family — until Esther throws Max in front of a car and burns down Daniel's treehouse. Rafy/Warner Bros. Pictures hide caption

itoggle caption Rafy/Warner Bros. Pictures
Vera Farmiga, Aryana Engineer, Jimmy Bennett, Peter Sarsgaard and Isabelle Fuhrman in 'Orphan'

Clan Warfare: Max (Aryana Engineer), Daniel (Jimmy Bennett), John (Peter Sarsgaard), Kate and Esther make one big happy family — until Esther throws Max in front of a car and burns down Daniel's treehouse.

Rafy/Warner Bros. Pictures

Can the persistence of the Evil Child Thriller be attributed to the fact that America, when it comes to the movies, behaves like a nation of helpless, frightened children?

This theory is suggested by the minor brouhaha surrounding Orphan, the story of a preternaturally mature munchkin who terrorizes the upper middle class of Connecticut. Some have worried that this silly, vicious, wildly campy shocker may have a detrimental effect on adoption.

Now, there are any number of amusing things about the movie, but the notion that prospective adopters may think twice in order not to bring home a deranged foreigner with a penchant for dressing in 19th century clothes and killing people with hammers is the most delightful. Worrying over the sociological impact of Orphan is like fretting over whether the popularity of Up will prove responsible for a decimation of the Boy Scout population due to helium-flotation mishaps.

And in any case, were someone to adopt a child like Esther (Isabelle Fuhrman), and find themselves witnessing a troubling set of behaviors (maiming other children) and weirdly sophisticated talents (a mastery of language skills, painting and Tchaikovsky), they would surely exhibit a less dramatically convenient brand of denial than the parents here.

Kate Coleman (Vera Farmiga), it should be said, has an excuse. Orphan opens with a splendidly nasty dream sequence giving vent to her guilt over having lost one daughter in childbirth — and nearly losing another to an accident she slept through in an alcoholic stupor.

Having sobered up, Kate is eager to increase her brood, and together with her architect husband John (Peter Sarsgaard), agrees to adopt freaky little Esther. Trouble almost immediately ensues, as Esther slithers her way into this bobo paradise and starts manipulating the Coleman kids (Jimmy Bennett as Daniel, Aryana Engineer as Max).

Directed by Jaume Collet-Serra — a Spaniard notable for directing Paris Hilton in the Hollywood remake of House of Wax — from a screenplay by David Leslie Johnson, Orphan hits mostly predictable notes in a scenario that stops short, just barely, of throwing a cat on a piano.

And yet the movie is, as these things go, enjoyably trashy. Farmiga, in a very strong performance, gives the proceedings enough ballast to create genuine camp. It's hard to believe the director is taking this all seriously, and the audience most assuredly isn't, but Kate most definitely is. And for all the mounting absurdity of her dilemma, she evokes real sympathy.

Though Sarsgaard merely looks bored, the child actors are terrific. Little Miss Fuhrman's outrageous, giggle-inducing performance — a camp tour-de-force of hysterical maliciousness — is destined for a place in the Evil Child pantheon. And the movie does a nice job of establishing the tension between her machinations among the freaked-out Coleman kids and the psychodrama of their neurotic parents.

As for what, exactly, is the problem with Esther, Orphan builds to a climax at once obvious and utterly random. And why not? Sometimes being treated like a frightened, helpless child is just the thing to pass an hour howling with laughter and jumping in your seat.

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