Gruesome and gripping as a horrific meditation on the apathy of consumption, Orphan is a mainstream cousin to Joshua, a shamefully mishandled 2007 horror film.
Both feature kids who actually are killers, as well as co-star Vera Farmiga – in Joshua the mentally beleaguered birth mother, and, in Orphan, a take-charge adoptive mom. Joshua felt more devastating, but Orphan’s own tantalizing symphony of destruction crescendos with a viciously disturbing turn from 12-year-old Isabelle Fuhrman.
She plays Esther, who has the ringlets of an American Girl doll with a Russian accent. Mennonites wear more progressive clothes than Esther – who always prefers ribbons on her wrist and neck as accessories to her antiquated dresses. She’s all polite curtsies and winning smiles – all of which endear her to Kate and John Coleman (Farmiga and Peter Sarsgaard).
Recovering from alcoholic tendencies and rebounding from a miscarriage – shown in a prologue akin to David Cronenberg’s The Fly – Kate wants a third child to join son Danny (Jimmy Bennett, perennially imperiled child star of Hostage, Poseidon, Firewall and The Amityville Horror) and deaf daughter Max (Aryana Engineer, who is hearing-impaired in real life).
Why Kate and john want Esther ties into writer David Johnson’s theme on the comforts of luxury for a family plagued by piled-upon tragedy. The iPhone, the Lexus, the plasma, the architectural marvel of a house, the darling new little girl! For them, adopting Esther is plugging gum in a dike. Esther will, of course, psychopathically exploit them all as bad behavior and outbursts give way to murder.
As Kate grows wise to Esther’s manipulations, Farmiga brings out not just maternal toughness, but a rage that her vulnerabilities have gotten the best of her. It’s a tricky part, one that elicits a rooting interest without generating much sympathy.
Director Jaume Collet-Serra (of the comparatively less-subtle House of Wax remake) deftly turns Danny and Max into the true protagonists of the piece. Sure, Orphan walks the line of gratuitousness in asking a real-life deaf child to brandish a gun. But the perspective he uses for a scene with a runaway car is chilling, and his unvarnished approach suggests that no matter who survives, innocence is a goner.
Less effective are Collet-Serra’s chintzy boo scares and reverse-boo anxiety. Even the medicine cabinet in the Coleman house makes the sound of grinding gears when opened.
A small quarrel, as here’s a wintry horror film that actually is a haunting in Connecticut. That’s because once Esther begins wielding hammers, waving box cutters and threatening bodily harm to boy parts, it’s conceivable that she could annihilate this entire family. That nagging, disturbing thought comes from one of the most earthshakingly adult performances from a child since Natalie Portman in Léon.
As with Portman, it’s hard to imagine there won’t be a spate of intriguing roles — not just teenybopper comedies — in Furman’s future. She makes you feel Esther’s insatiably sociopathic hunger to nastily and thoroughly pursue her endgame.
Regarding that endgame, Johnson’s script plays fair with the red herrings before a devilishly delightful denouement with good-twist torque that still makes sense. Esther doesn’t just want to topple the Colemans’ house of cards. She wants to torch it, and Orphan is, along with Drag Me To Hell, a good dose of mainstream horror for 2009.