The adoption rate just plummeted thanks to this film.
Director – Jaume Collet-Serra
Screenplay – David Leslie Johnson
Producer – Joel Silver, Susan Downey, Leonardo DiCaprio & Jennifer Davisson Killoran
Rated R for disturbing violent content, some sexuality and language
John (Peter Sarsgaard) and Kate Coleman (Vera Farmiga) marriage has been struggling since their third child was stillborn. The loss has been especially hard on Kate, a recovering alcoholic. After some time, the two decide to adopt from the local orphanage, and find the perfect girl in the 9-year-old Esther (Isabelle Fuhrman). And boy is she perfect. She loves to paint, is highly articulate for 9-years-old, dresses to impress, picks up sign language as easy as learning the ABCs and can rattle off Tchaikovsky like its “Chopsticks”.
She’s also just a little bit vindictive and just a touch pure evil… but, hey, who am I to judge?
While the new addition to the family is met with open arms by John and Kate’s youngest deaf daughter Max (Aryana Engineer), their oldest son Daniel (Jimmy Bennett) isn’t quite as thrilled.
Might have been the “She’s not my fucking sister!” that gave it away.
While everything seems peachy-keen at the Coleman’s, Kate begins to grow suspicious of Esther’s behavior. As more and more of Kate’s suspicions begin to be confirmed one after the other, it slowly becomes clear that Esther may not be the sweet little angel she appears to be.
Spanish director Jaume Collet-Serra could very well be our 21st century’s version of John McTiernan. For those that need a refresher course in McTeirnan’s body of work, the man gave us action classics such as Predator, Die Hard, The Hunt for Red October, and Die Hard with a Vengeance (and while it’s certainly not as good as those four, I will defend to the death Last Action Hero as a self-aware, campy homage to B-movies). Collet-Serra may have yet to deliver a top of the genre list home run like Die Hard, but he has gradually carved out quite a nice resume of B-movie premises executed with grade-A technique and precision.
Prior to establishing himself as Liam Neeson’s go-to action helmer (Non-Stop, Run All Night and this week’s The Commuter), Collet-Serra started out in horror, beginning with his 2005 directorial debut, the far inferior remake of the Vincent Price classic House of Wax, and then most recently turning in the highly effective survival horror flick The Shallows starring Blake Lively. His third effort (following his sophomore sports flick Goal II: Living the Dream), 2009’s psychological horror-thriller Orphan, found himself rebounding from his debut dud tremendously.
Following in the footsteps of past evil, scary kid flicks like The Omen and The Bad Seed, Orphan is the type of film the Macaulay Culkin/Elijah Wood turd The Good Son wishes it could’ve been. It’s the age-old narrative of one frustrated protagonist knowing something about someone else that everyone else either doesn’t know or ignorantly chooses not to know. It’s a device in thrillers that has been used many times before, both to better and lesser effect, but Collet-Serra transcends familiarity with a series of twisted antics and mind games that are ratcheted tighter and tighter like stretched razor wire over the course of 100 minutes.
Collet-Serra blends a style that is disturbing yet quiet and slickly elegant in ways that will call to mind Roman Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby and Nicolas Roeg’s Don’t Look Now. Though there are a few requisite “jump” moments, all Collet-Serra really needs is some strong sound design and a couple of tightly focused, sequenced shots on a playground and he’ll have your knuckles turning white in no time.
As the late, great Roger Ebert once said, “It’s not what you do, it’s the way that you do it.”
What makes Orphan work so effectively is the way Collet-Serra and writer David Leslie Johnson take their time establishing the Coleman family before turning up the suspense dials. Prior to Esther even entering the film, the first-act sets up the whole family nicely, focusing on their recent struggles that have hit them hard emotionally (there’s a great moment where Kate explains in sign language to Max what happened to her deceased baby sister that’s both beautiful and just a touch heart-breaking at the same time). Because of Collet-Serra and Johnson’s investment in developing these characters, we become genuinely invested in their safety by the time Esther begins revealing her true colors.
Major credit belongs to the cast for not only earning our investment in their characters, but also lending credibility to the events and revelations that transpire the moment Esther enters their lives. The wonderful Vera Farmiga delivers strong work that stands as one of the film’s best. Despite past actions that have shaped Kate into a deeply flawed woman, Farmiga still finds a way to genuinely earn our sympathies, as well as our support as others continue to doubt her fears and concerns (her flaws serve as the source of skepticism from others). As the more understanding father, the underrated Peter Sarsgaard doesn’t have quite the character depth that Farmiga gets to work with, but his pleasant features and soothing voice still allow him to fit perfectly in this type of role. John’s understanding does border on push-over chump, but even while we’re wondering when he’ll take a hint, or at the very least, are wanting him to lighten up on the stubborn refusal to trust Kate’s suspicions, the concerns he has against his wife do contain some validity.
All three kids are equally strong, and it’s because of their performances that the film avoids exploitation when placing them in danger. Aryana Engineer is an adorable standout, whose adorability never comes off as cloying or overbearingly precious. Like Kate, Max slowly begins to share the same fears of Esther over time, yet unlike her mother, her frustrations are compounded by not just limited the means of communication beyond sign language, but also the silence Esther bullies into her. Reportedly, Collet-Serra said Engineer, who is partially deaf, didn’t understand what was going on during production and thought it was all a game. Game or not, the result from her is outstanding, both in her sign language communicating with the other actors and her expressiveness.
Channeling her inner Damien Thorn, Isabelle Fuhrman’s revelatory performance is equal parts sugar and spice and cold as ice. The cast may be great all-around, but the film wouldn’t nearly be as effective if not for what she brings to Esther. Fuhrman conveys just enough innocence to believably sell how a family could be so taken by someone whose ability to be so damn perfect at every single thing would normally have anyone else x’ing off boxes on a red flag checklist. When she flips the switch, however, particularly with the irritating ways she gets under Kate’s skin, she’s as cold and manipulative a little bitch as there ever was, and Fuhrman holds her own spectacularly against seasoned acting pros like Farmiga and Sarsgaard.
I will admit that it’s slightly unfortunate that following the climactic reveal – and it’s quite a doozy of one if you’re willing to go along with it – Orphan devolves into a generic thriller, a tonal and stylistic contradiction from the unnerving, atmospheric vibe Collet-Serra establishes for most of the film. It’s a testament to the great work by the cast that the concluding scenes don’t derail the film; however, considering Esther’s sinister craftiness and the psychological ass-kicking she had been inflicting on the Coleman’s, a more clever ending from Johnson would’ve served this film better.
Don’t let its routine conclusion deter you, however. Despite succumbing to some third-act genre trappings, Orphan is still an eerily tense and engaging thriller that delivers the goods by way of Jaume Collet-Serra’s taut direction and a uniformly strong cast. Damien may still be the king of evil kids (hard to beat the anti-Christ, after all), but Esther still ranks as one of the best.
Or would it be worst?
Stash Tier: Gold Stash