Something is wrong with Esther.
Here we have another take on the new millennium’s favorite movie monster, the creepy little kid. It’s not a new phenomenon, of course, with a history ranging from The Bad Seed (“A basket of hugs”) and The Shining (“Come and play with us, Danny”) to The Ring (“Everyone will suffer”). In recent years, creepy little kids have turned up in horror flick after horror flick, from various parts of the globe. I could write paragraphs speculating about why this is—a fear of the responsibilities of parenting, a fear of adults not understanding their children, a post-millennium fear of the future—but when the movie is as cheesy as Orphan, why bother?
Esther (Isabelle Fuhrman) is a 9-year-old orphan, a small Russian girl displaced in the US after a tragedy. She’s sought out at the orphanage by a couple (Vera Farmiga and Peter Sarsgard) who lost their third child at birth years earlier. Esther melts their hearts, and she’s quickly adopted.
So Esther moves in and, although she’s different from the family’s other two kids, things go well…at first. However, as her behavior becomes more and more odd, one by one the family members begin to realize (as the tagline warns us) something is indeed wrong with Esther.
Any discussion of Orphan will be tricky, because it’s hard to talk about without getting into the final act’s surprise twist, one that takes the movie from “paint by numbers thriller” into “this is so cheesy it has turned my TV screen into pure Velveeta.” There are some interesting ideas present, mainly when Esther is interacting with her two adopted siblings. These playground-and-treehouse scenes nicely depict the strange underworld of children that adults rarely see, such as secretive games played in an attic, or notes passed in class with hidden messages in the first letter of every paragraph. As Esther takes her new little sister into her confidence, and her dark ways, her new older brother suspects something is up. This kid-level drama is the most compelling part of the film. When the focus turns to the parents, as the movie gradually reveals the skeletons in their closets, the emotional breakdown feels more forced than genuinely intense. All this ceases to matter, when the big surprise hits, and the movie becomes epic in its ridiculousness. But, I’ve already said too much.
Maybe it’s mean of me to criticize this movie by saying the kid actors are more compelling than the adults—more a symptom of the script than the performances—but it’s true. Vera Farmiga and Peter Sarsgard give it their all, but the story demands their characters are so wrapped up in personal crises that they end up clueless to Esther’s obvious evilness. Naturally, the whole film relies on young Furhman as Esther. She’s very good at being creepy. So good, in fact, she’s incredibly creepy in scenes in which she’s supposedly charming her new family and earning their trust. This makes the audience stand up and say “Why can’t these people see that this is little girl is quite obviously more sinister than Saruman?!”
Is the movie scary? The big scenes are more flinching than terror-inducing. There are several eye-popping moments in which the kids get involved in some sinister shenanigans, the filmmakers intent on pushing the limit as to how much messed-up stuff they can get away with when the kids are on screen. Violence, threats of violence, and more occur when Esther is around. Whether it’s important to the story or shock for shock value’s sake is up to you. On the down side, there are a lot of fake-out scares, such as attempts at making the audience jump, or making the audience think they’re about to jump when—surprise!—nothing’s there. There’s even the ancient cliché of the “it was all a dream” jump scare. Did director Jaume Collet-Serra really need to include all these fake-outs, when nothing in the film is scarier than Esther’s icy stare?
Don’t be afraid of this DVD. The video and audio is stellar, as is expected for a recently-produced film. The extras only consist of some deleted scenes and a bizarre alternate ending. It’s too bad, because it would have been great to hear more from the cast and crew about how this oddball movie came about, and I’m sure there must be some interesting tales about what happened behind the scenes. Also, Leonardo DiCaprio’s name shows up in the credits as one of the producers. What’s the story behind that?
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Great numbers of people have attacked this movie for its depiction of the adoption process. These days almost all big movies attract protests from one activist organization or another (remember when those animal rights groups picketed theaters showing Chicken Run?), but in this case the complainers have a point. Orphan doesn’t paint the adoption process in a very positive light. First, the movie depicts adopting a child as something as simple as buying a box of cereal—you go to the store, pick one you want, and take it home. Second, considering how badly it goes for everyone, the moral of the story would seem to be “Whatever you do, don’t adopt.” To be fair, the filmmakers have included an adoption PSA, with a disclaimer that Orphan is a work of fiction and not meant to be an accurate portrayal of real children. I’ve gone ahead and included the same link from the PSA off to the side under “Accomplices.”
Esther may be creepy, but her movie is beyond cheesy. That doesn’t mean I’m not recommending it. You should at least rent Orphan for the experience. That way, you can tell your friends, “You’ll never believe this movie I saw the other night!” That said, if you want a truly excellent creepy little kid flick, snag a copy of Let the Right One In and watch it with all the lights turned off.
Totally guilty, but see it anyway.