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.