ORPHAN, Review. – Adam’s Take.

Posted by Adam Charles - July 29th 2009 @ 9:13 am

Directed by Jaume Collet-Serra, 2009
Written by David Johnson, Story by Alex Mace

Have you ever experienced a situation where your preconceptions about something are shattered, only to have the pieces put back together again with the cracks visible?  Like walking into an elementary school classroom and hearing the teacher shout obscenities, only to find out later you just misheard the whole thing.   That’s ORPHAN.

It puts you into a position of complete unease then goes down a more conventional path as if it felt a need to ease your discomfort.  What starts out bold ends up familiar, and tame.

The orphan of the title is Esther, played by young Isabelle Fuhrman, who has been adopted by Kate and John Coleman (Vera Farmiga and Peter Sarsgaard) from an orphanage that specializes in caring for children that have trouble finding homes because they’ve gone past the age of preference for most adoptive parents.  Kate and John have two children already, a son Daniel in his terrible tweens and adorable hearing impaired daughter Max.  The family had a third child on the way, but a stillborn pregnancy left them devastated – in particular Kate who has yet to fully acclimate back to routine.

Esther was to be their therapeutic closure to past woes, and Kate and John instantly connect with her individuality and self-assurance.  They take her home and get along famously until Kate begins to slowly notice Esther’s habit of being at the wrong places at the wrong times.  Kate gradually starts to question her early connection with Esther, and gets skeptical of her polite façade.  As events gradually escalate from grim to deadly all signs appear to point to Esther – in Kate’s eyes.  Fearing for the safety of her children Kate begins a personal quest to uncover Esther’s mysterious past at the cost of appearing insane by adults that have succumbed to Esther’s manipulative skills, and are already weary of Kate’s state of mind based on her history with alcoholism.

If you’re thinking to yourself, based on the trailer, that you’ve seen this film before about fifteen years ago with Macaulay Culkin and Elijah Wood you’d be wrong.  That was called THE GOOD SON.  This is called ORPHAN.

It actually bears a more thematic relation to a film like THE HAND THAT ROCKS THE CRADLE.  While the feature of a child gone bad is the most prominent aspect of the film, it feels more in line with the “unknowingly welcoming a predator into your home” story.

The invader taking the form of a young child is a dangerous attempt at being distinctive, despite its facial resemblance to THE GOOD SON or THE BAD SEED.  If you’re too soft you’re not a thrilling thriller, but if you’re too hard you risk boycotts and/or lawsuits.  I was surprised to find that for a good ¾ of the film the content borders on daring.  I’ve seen more disturbing material, but don’t recall a studio horror film getting me as unsettled as ORPHAN sometimes does.

It has moments of such nerve that you either want to drop your jaw, or laugh uncontrollably from sheer disbelief.  Somehow it’s able to evoke the same reactions as BRUNO, and in the same way for the most part.  It does get ridiculous on occasion and those laughs are unintentionally produced, but a laugh is a laugh and it’s synonymous with enjoyment; or discomfort.  Both are good things in a horror / thriller.

What isn’t good is to play with little regard for the rules for much of the running time just to end in a manner completely within the bounds of what’s “acceptable.”  It’s a horror film.  Horrify me.  I can take it, and if I can’t then you’ve done something pretty amazing.  Be the teacher that shouts obscenities at elementary students for no reason at all.

The content teeter-totters between bold and predictable, but the actors perform relatively admirably and consistently when the story can lean towards bizarre.  The characters are cliché(ish), and sometimes aggravating – especially the John Coleman character played by Sarsgaard.  He’s too easily convinced of his wife’s insanity seemingly because the filmmakers feel he has to be to generate audience anger.  That’s not the case, but kudos to Sarsgaard for really making me dislike him.

Farmiga also deserves a nod of approval for keeping the dramatic elements grounded and not often giving way to melodrama when it could have.  She makes a capable heroine, and I’d like to see her get some of the more challenging roles she’s capable of fulfilling.

Little Isabelle Fuhrman is given the meatiest amount of fun, and she pulls it off with more gusto than many other child actors have shown.  She’s not revelatory but she shows a maturity and understanding of her role that many adult actors can’t claim to have.  She shows a range in one role that could translate into a successful career outside of just being a conniving menace.

ORPHAN is a strange one.  It exceeded my low expectations incredibly, only to later validate why I thought I wouldn’t like it.  I wish it had strived for lawsuits and boycotts because it appeared well on its way anyway.  The American horror film needs a new shock; and to have it come from a studio instead of an independent would be all the more rewarding.

I don’t know if ORPHAN takes the sharp turn towards the end because that’s legitimately the story they wanted to tell or they figured we just couldn’t handle the way the story was going.  They might both be true, but I’d hate to think that filmmakers avoid material seen as too taboo in a genre that’s meant for it.  It’s where the name comes from.  ORPHAN boldly goes where few studio horror films have gone only to turn back home, erase the journey from the books, and not tell anyone where they went.

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  1. lookf4r
    July 29th, 2009 | 10:32 am | #1

    Is it worth seeing at the the theater or save it for dvd?

  2. adam charles
    July 29th, 2009 | 11:34 am | #2

    I don’t think it’s worth full price admission (even though that’s what I paid). However, watching it on the big screen probably adds little to the experience. I can imagine it wouldn’t affect me the same way had I seen it at home.

  3. July 29th, 2009 | 12:58 pm | #3

    Man, once again, I am the odd man out. I loved this film. Best of the year, theatrically, at least.

  4. adam charles
    July 29th, 2009 | 1:10 pm | #4

    Also, I meant to say “I can’t imagine it wouldn’t affect me the same way had I seen it at home.” Meaning, watching it at home probably won’t diminish whatever experience you’ll have with it.


    I wouldn’t say I didn’t like it. It did more than I EVER would have expected, but I think that final twist in a way retracts all of the dangerous material that preceded it.

  5. July 29th, 2009 | 2:49 pm | #5

    I would have to say i was shocked, a good storyline and the movie generated fear at the same time. It had subsistence I love horror movies and really had low expectations on this movie. That goes to show you don’t judge a book by it’s cover.

    The Orphan is a good movie a least a lot better then i thought it was going to be.

    Posted By TormentedFilms.com

  6. Matt J.
    July 29th, 2009 | 3:53 pm | #6

    Brad…best of the year…really? I liked it, but I think best of the year is streaching it a bit, you need to see more movies my friend.

  7. Colin P.
    July 30th, 2009 | 2:14 am | #7

    I just wanna clear something up real quick about the boycotts of this film. I saw this with my wife two days ago. We are about to adopt… and you know what? The protestors are ABSOLUTELY RIGHT! I think that we are going to see a dramatic decrease in the number of people that accidently adopt psychotic russian 32-year-olds disguised as children. Way to go special interes groups. YOU HAVE SAVED US!

  8. July 31st, 2009 | 12:58 pm | #8

    This movie was one of the best movies I have ever seen. All of the actors and actresses in this movie did an amazing job. I thought that the little girl who played Max was adorable, I really hope she goes far in acting.

  9. Michelle
    August 2nd, 2009 | 8:06 am | #9

    To the reviewer –

    In your opinion, the fact that she wasn’t a child after all negated the terror of having her do all the terrible things? Or is it the fact that she was clinically insane and therefore we “expect” her to do terrible things?

  10. adam charles
    August 2nd, 2009 | 7:04 pm | #10


    I was trying to avoid the *spoiler* but I guess it’s gotten to be somewhat common knowledge now. It was the fact that she turned out not to be a child. It negates the shock of seeing a studio horror picture have the audaciousness to depict a child in that way, and as bluntly as they do.

    It’s similar to hearing if some of Sacha Baron Cohen’s subjects were in on the joke in one of his films. It’s not shocking if the most shocking element is removed.

  11. Colin Not P
    August 5th, 2009 | 12:02 am | #11

    I have to disagree somewhat on that though, cause when you first see it it feels like esther’s this little kid doing these horrible things. The revelation that she’s not makes the ending even creepier, while allowing the beginning 3/4 to have the shock of her being a kid. That scene where she tries to seduce Johnneh is pretty yuck.
    I don’t care how drunk you are, nobody’d hit that.
    This movie freaked me out, but only sorta. I was jumpy for a little afterwards but eh.
    Feeling normal now, and I’m a pussy when it comes to horror.
    Good movie though. Recommend it,

  12. adam charles
    August 5th, 2009 | 1:21 am | #12

    Colin –

    It is shocking when you see it. It no longer is when you know she’s not. That may just be my perception, but I react the same way even to great horror films. Not in terms of shock but in terms of scares. Sometimes something is portrayed as threatening, but by the time the film is done the film has convinced you that what seemed threatening in fact wasn’t. This is common in ghost story films like The Sixth Sense, The Others, and The Orphanage. They’re all relatively scary ‘while’ you’re watching them, but the shift towards the end of each in regards to the ghost’s motives make it much less scary every repeat viewing. They persevere and hold up to repeat viewings anyway because they are all very good films that can scare, not scary films that rely on scares to be good.

    In the case of ORPHAN, to me, when you no longer view the little girl as a little girl the whole landscape changes for the worse. The film relies heavily on your belief that she’s a little girl for shock value, which I don’t mind because I enjoyed it and was relatively shocked about as frequently as they intended, but when the key ingredient to the shock is replaced with its polar opposite the desired reaction won’t be there a second time.

    This is the biggest reason I gave the film a B minus. I think it’s enjoyable to watch once, but I don’t think it’s nearly good enough to hold up to repeat viewings. I know that each time I watch it will be much less enjoyable than the time before it.

  13. MC
    August 6th, 2009 | 4:29 am | #13

    I saw the twist coming – when she threatened to castrate the son, she sounded like a Russian mobster.

    But that didn’t prepare me for the actual reveal.

    Did anyone else notice how subtly they start showing her arms, with hair on them?

  14. Colin Not P
    August 6th, 2009 | 7:59 pm | #14

    No yeah I agree. It’s definitely a watch once kinda deal

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