50th Review Special: Orphan (4.5/5)

Orphan

Directed by Jaume Collet-Serra

Starring Vera Farmiga, Peter Sarsgaard, Isabelle Fuhrman, Aryana Engineer, Jimmy Bennett

Released on July 24, 2009

Running time 2h 3m

Rated R

Genre: Thriller, Horror

For my fiftieth review, I decided to break my usual pattern again by reviewing something that I like despite its flaws.

I know I just complained about Dark Castle Entertainment in my The Hills Run Red review, but I can safely say that this is one of their occasional movies that actually succeeds.

I know that Jaume Collet-Serra was responsible for the failed remake of House of Wax, as well as a trio of mediocre films starring Liam Neeson: Unknown, Non-Stop­, and Gun All Right – sorry, Run All Night. If you don’t get that little nudge, just look up Liam Neeson’s political statements regarding guns. His hypocrisy speaks for itself.

But Collet-Serra, like every broken clock, is right twice a day. And he struck gold with Orphan.

Despite some issues, this film works.

I think that the idea was particularly clever; it has been seriously underdone throughout film history, with its only successful executions being 1956’s The Bad Seed and 1976’s The Omen. I’m not even going to talk about 1993’s The Good Son.

Kate and John Coleman (Vera Farmiga and Peter Sarsgaard respectively), after the brutal miscarriage of their unborn child, decide to adopt a child to fill in the hole left by their loss. They adopt nine-year-old Esther, (the beautiful Isabelle Fuhrman). However, over the course of most of the movie, Esther is revealed to not be all she says she is, and things take a nasty turn.

The film begins with an out-of-focus scene in which Kate and John enter a hospital. Kate is checked in and is wheelchaired off to a room, but starts leaking blood from her nethers. Realizing that the Kate is in the process of having a miscarriage, the doctors wheel her to surgery, and they are implied to be performing an all-out vivisection. And then Kate wakes up from this, realizing it was a nightmare. I found this scene surprisingly shocking. Just the idea of miscarriage was enough, but combining shaky-cam with visual effects and distortion makes the vivisection scene unbearably tense. I actually gaped and covered my mouth at this. Kate, I’m so sorry for your loss.

Kate, in the aftermath of the miscarriage, deals with and conquers alcoholism, and, ultimately, she and John take the final step to moving on: they go to an orphanage to adopt a child. And they find perhaps the perfect child: nine-year-old Esther. She has a cute Eastern European accent. She speaks formally and professionally. She is a spectacular painter. She even knows to curtsy. And she even has her own personal Bible. She is slightly odd, as she always wears thick ribbons around her neck and wrists, but Kate and John know that this is the child they will adopt; they do so and take her home.

We are introduced to Kate and John’s other two children: Maxine (Engineer) “Max”, a deaf little cutie who immediately befriends Esther, and Daniel (Bennett), who is less welcoming, to say the least.

DANIEL: She’s not my … f^cking sister.

THAT was uncalled for.

To be perfectly frank, I, until the inevitable twist, wanted the remainder of the movie to just be about Esther and her induction into the family and the blossom of happiness that grows. In fact, seeing Esther help Kate heal made me tear up. Kate shows Esther a bush of white roses that grow where Kate spread the ashes of their miscarried child. And Esther’s remarks, while I forget what they said, touched my heart, and I gladly teared up. I’m serious. Kate went through a horrible experience, and I want her to heal, move on, and be happy again. And Esther seems like the perfect way to fill in the hole left by the miscarriage. Esther even learns sign language to communicate with Max. They form a very close sisterly bond, becoming nigh inseparable. Overall, the family welcomes Esther with open arms, loving her with all their heart, having that love reciprocated, feeding her artistic talents, and just being a happy family. And I am very happy for them.

I was surprised that she can play some Tchaikovsky with ease.

One scene, in which Esther is to take a bath, she locks the door, which, unbeknownst to Esther, is a no-no in the house. After Esther reveals that whenever she does this, she sings to let them know she’s okay, Kate allows her to do it just this once. And I thought, Please, Esther. I would love to hear you sing.

Esther starts school, but is almost immediately targeted by a group of girls who bully her because of her formal attire and the fact that she always wears thick ribbons around her neck and wrists.

The ear-to-ear smile on my face then began to slip, however, when I saw the first sign that Esther was not who she said she was. It happened one afternoon when Daniel was target practicing with his paintball gun. He hit a pigeon and wounded it. He was obviously distressed at the unintended injury, but Esther put it out of its misery with a rock.

The next sign happened one night when Kate and John decide to have sex on the kitchen counter of all places. Esther inadvertently sees the deed done, and Kate and John notice. The next morning, Kate attempts to give Esther the “birds and the bees” talk. The talk does not go over the way I expected. Kate starts with “when a mommy and a daddy love each other very much”, but Esther interrupts, saying she already knows about it, and adds one short sentence that I have yet to hear out of the mouth of any nine-year-old I know.

ESTHER: They f^ck.

I was stunned to hear that out of the mouth of such an innocent child.

The next sign occurred at school. Esther was walking through a crowded hall when she was surrounded by the bullies. They take her Bible and tear pages out of it, calling her a “Jesus freak”. But that’s not the odd part. When the lead bully, Brenda, tries to remove Esther’s neck ribbon, calling it a “doggy collar”, Esther reacts violently, screaming at the top of her lungs. Note how I didn’t pull the SCREAMING AT THE TOP OF HER LUNGS bit, as that would imply that the scream was borderline comical. No. Esther’s scream was quite different. I wanted to berate the bullies, especially Brenda, but I didn’t have to – Brenda gets her comeuppance.

John takes Esther and Max to a playground. Brenda is also there, but has chosen not to bully Esther at the moment. We then see Esther disappear when John is distracted by an old flame. Brenda wanders through the playground equipment and comes to the top of a long slide. Esther then appears behind her and pushes her off the slide. Brenda falls and breaks her ankle.

Kate is met by Sister Abigail, the matriarch of the orphanage from whence Esther came, who warns her that bad things happen when Esther is around. When Sister Abigail leaves the Coleman residence, Esther shoves Max into the path of the car, causing Sister Abigail to swerve off the road and crash. After an injured Sister Abigail tries to crawl away from Esther, Esther kills her with a hammer, shoves her body in the river, and hides the hammer in Daniel’s tree house.

Meanwhile, Kate is now convinced that something is very wrong with Esther, but, of course, no one believes her. Kate finds Esther’s personal Bible, and determines that it came from the Saarne Institute in Estonia, which, strangely, is a mental hospital. Kate emails a picture of Esther to them and asks for more information.

Daniel learns of Sister Abigail’s death from Max, and tells Max of his plan to retrieve the hammer. Esther overhears, and that night holds a box cutter to Daniel’s throat and threatens him with castration if he tells Kate and John about what she did. After threatening Daniel with the loss of his luggage and both of his carry-ons, Esther returns to her room, admires her paintings, turns off the lights, and turns on a black light. Her paintings, which were originally of her family and her house, now show the house ablaze and all sorts of horrific things happening to her family.

The next night, Esther gives Kate a bouquet of roses. Kate is horrified to see that they are the roses she planted on her miscarried son’s grave. She roughly grabs Esther’s arm and twists her around. This causes Esther pain, and causes John to demand that Kate let Esther loose. Later that night, Esther is seen in the garage. She sticks her arm in a clamp and twists it just tight enough to break one of the bones in her arm. She complains about arm pain to John, who discovers that the arm is broken. He immediately blows up at Kate, who insists she could not have done so. Esther is taken to the hospital and her arm is put in a brace. While Esther is taken to the hospital, Kate goes out and buys two bottles of wine, but stops just before she drinks. She dumps one down the sink and hides the other.

Esther goes to school a few days later. She gets out of Kate’s car, and when Kate isn’t looking, Esther takes the brake off. The road to the school is on an incline, and taking off the brake sends the car careening down the hill into a snowdrift. Max is fine, but, that night, John and Kate’s therapist confront Kate, using Esther’s broken arm, today’s incident, and the wine bottle from earlier as evidence. The therapist insists that Kate should be sent to rehab, and John threatens to take the kids and leave.

A few days later, when Daniel attempts to retrieve the hammer, Esther sets his tree house on fire. Though Daniel survives by jumping out of the tree house, breaking his neck in the process, the hammer and other evidence is destroyed. Esther tries to finish Daniel off, but Max stops her, Kate arrives on the scene, and Daniel is taken to the hospital. While the family is at the hospital, Esther, under the guise of grabbing a soda from the vending machine, slips into Daniel’s room and smothers him with a pillow, which stops his heart, but the doctors quickly revive him. Kate knows that Esther tried to kill Daniel and attacks Esther, but the doctors sedate her and hold her at the hospital overnight.

Back at the house, Esther expertly applies makeup and modifies one of Kate’s dresses. John gets drunk and a now provocatively dressed Esther sits by him. To John’s horror, Esther tries to seduce him. John finally realizes that there’s something very wrong with Esther.

Meanwhile, Kate receives a call at the hospital from the Saarne Institute. The doctor reveals that Esther is not Esther – she is actually a 33-year-old woman named Leena Klammer who has hypopituitarism. For those of you who don’t know, hypopituitarism is a hormone disorder that stunts your physical growth. That is why Leena looks like she’s nine years old, but is actually 33. This is a particularly bad case, then. Leena has spent most of her life posing as a child and having families adopt her, attempting to seduce the father and have a sexual relationship with him. Leena has had a history of extreme violence and murder. The last family that adopted her was in Estonia, the father had rejected her sexual advances, and Leena had murdered the entire family. Her escape from the Saarne Institute had left her with scars around her neck and wrists, which explains the ribbons. Kate checks herself out of the hospital and rushes home to prevent her family from suffering the same fate.

Leena essentially has an anger-induced nervous breakdown. She ransacks her room and removes the disguise that enhanced her youthful illusion as Esther, adding about three years to her face and size. She hides. John enters Leena’s room and is horrified to discover paintings of himself and Leena in various sexual acts. Leena then kills John. Max sees this happen and hides.

Kate arrives home and finds John’s corpse. Leena grabs John’s gun, shoots Kate in the arm, and tracks Max down, but Kate knocks her out, takes the gun, and flees with Max. Leena regains consciousness, finds Kate and Max near a frozen pond, and attacks Kate, knocking the gun away. The fight moves onto the ice-covered pond. Max grabs the gun and tries to shoot Leena, but misses and hits the ice instead, cracking it, causing Leena and Kate to fall into the water. Kate climbs out. Leena reverts to her Esther persona, begging Kate not to let her die, addressing her as “Mommy”. Kate angrily responds that she is not her mother. She kicks Leena in the face, breaking her neck. Leena sinks back into the pond, and Max and Kate are found by the police soon after.

If you want a movie about an evil child, don’t want to find the little-known The Bad Seed, and don’t want to subject yourself to the atrocity known as The Good Son, this is the film for you. The story is surprisingly strong despite turning somewhat sleazy near the end, the characters are relatable and lovable, especially pre-crazy Esther/Leena, the script is well written, and the acting is fantastic apart from Sarsgaard being a little bland at times. Vera Farmiga earned a place on my list of favorite actresses with her role in The Conjuring, and solidified her place with Orphan.

But there is one flaw that seriously detracts from the overall product: Orphan’s scare sequences. For example: the scene at the playground. Shown mostly from Brenda’s perspective, the scene has the camerawork and it has the music. But it lacks one thing: what we’re supposed to be scared of. I know we’re supposed to be scared of Esther, but she hasn’t done anything particularly bad until now.

But enough of the bad; this was a damn good movie. Isabelle Fuhrman does a wonderful job as Esther/Leena, and I wish her the best of luck in her acting career.

Final verdict: 4.5 out of 5 stars.

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