Little Orphan Crazy: The Perverse Pleasures of “Orphan”

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As far as evil children movies go, the subgenre has little new to offer given The Bad Seed, The Omen, The Exorcist, and Children of the Corn. Each offered their take on why children are scum of the earth, and, for the most part, it was came from the angle of religious power. They’re either the spawn of Satan, in a weird cult, or the Devil himself. With regard to the violent nature and pure insanity of the Evil Child, Jaume Collet-Serra’s Orphan fails to bring anything particularly new. But that’s a good thing, because it doesn’t need to. Neither self-aware nor too self-serious, Orphan is bizarrely one of the most effective thrillers, perhaps primarily because of the high caliber performances from all of its players, particularly from young Isabelle Fuhrman.

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Warning: Spoilers Ahead

Pushing past their marital strife, Kate and John Coleman (Vera Farmiga and Peter Sarsgaard) adopt a 9-year-old Russian orphan named Esther (Isabelle Fuhrman). Their deaf daughter Max (Aryana Engineer) is quite welcoming towards the new member of the family, but their slightly older son Daniel (Jimmy Bennett) is colder and, in a mix of angst, stubbornness, and skepticism, doubtful of how much he can trust the invader.

Perhaps what’s most fascinating about the film is the way that Esther is able to break down the family so sharply with such cunning. The general conceit, that no one will believe the skeptic (in this case, Farmiga) and everyone will be against her yada yada, is nothing new. But what other films often fail to do is give more texture to the already existing relationship. There may occasionally be past tension in this kind of previously established marriage, but a concrete backstory to add layers to that tension is hard to come by. In Orphan, it exists in multitudes, and one could argue that the film is most fascinating precisely because it shows in such detail the dissolution of a marriage, almost worthy of Lars von Trier. Kate had a stillborn child which led to alcoholism which led to her daughter nearly drowning (it’s hinted that this may be the reason that Max is deaf, not because she was born that way) and she was in jail for a time. Her husband has cheated on her in the past, and such a mistake seems ever present in their lives. It’s a weird portrait of a family that’s trying to function when its mechanics are clearly rustier than its façade.

That screenwriter David Leslie Johnson (and Alex Mace) create such a compelling backstory make the stakes feel significantly higher when Esther starts going on a rampage. Her side of the mystery, her origins and whatnot, aren’t as remotely interesting in comparison to the Coleman’s backstories. It’s Esther’s ability to key into each of the layers of antipathy that seems both wildly childish and conniving enough to seem adult. It helps that Farmiga and Sarsgaard give pretty incredible performance in what ostensibly amounts to a B-horror movie, and yet that marital friction seems as realistic and painful as anything from Nicole Kidman and Aaron Eckhart in Rabbit Hole to A Woman Under the Influence.

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The aspect of the stillborn child, though again not very original, is something the film capitalizes on a great deal. There’s still the rawness of a fresh wound that one can sense in the family, and it either manifests as that existing tension or as the dream sequence that kicks off the film, wherein Kate relives the horrific event. Perhaps this element of her character, a bereaved mother whose life had been thrown out of its normal routine and into stress and pain, further texturizes Kate. The maternal instinct seems there, but flawed. There are reverberations in her tone of voice and gestures that point to all of this stress building up.

It’s particularly fascinating because one can tell, even towards the beginning, that there’s a sharpness and a caustic tone to their interactions, combined with their desire for things to “get back to normal”. The adoption of another child seems to be the great compromise which is supposed to fix things. There are attempts in the film for John and Kate to rekindle their relationship, and Esther is able to sabotage, in her way, each of them. From sex in the kitchen to sex in the bedroom… Esther, thoroughly manipulative, knows how to play the parents off one another, again the kind of action which is both infantile and catty in a “mature” way.

Fuhrman (who is, ironically, of Russian descent) does what few child actors can do well: she can really act. Like Tatum O’Neal in Paper Moon and Natalie Portman in Leon: The Professional, her kind of acting requires there to be an adult sensibility to it because the roles themselves thrust children into very different dynamics. Particularly interesting about these kinds of roles, which are both few and far between as well as infrequently excellent, is that they are predicated on a kind of duality that must exist for them to work at all. In Paper Moon, Addie Pray must be wise and mature beyond her years whilst travelling with her sort-of father conman, but she has to be cute enough (and vaguely androgynous) in order to win thine hearts of her customers/”victims”. In The Professional, maturity is crucial for Mathilda given that were she not, Leon (Jean Reno) would have nothing to do with her.

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And here, since Fuhrman is a kid playing an adult playing a kid, being able to reveal certain aspects of that duality when it best fits the scene is imperative for her character to function believably. Towards the beginning of the film, she’s a precocious orphan from Russia that just happens to be very fluent in English. She maintains a perfectly calculated Russian accent. Not too harsh, not too light. She plays that superficially charming card with expertise, while she’s impressively “mature for her age”, it’s not anything too worthy of the audience’s skepticism. We know she’s bad, but Fuhrman is clever enough to delude us into thinking she’s normal, regardless of what we already know about the movie. Each subsequent scene, Fuhrman reveals her true intelligence, but what’s most impressive about this is the restraint involved on her part.

Two scenes come to mind: Kate, a skilled pianist, tries to each Esther how to play on the piano, treating her like a beginner. Later, she walks in on Esther playing Tchaikovsky. It’s not necessarily the handwork that’s impressive here, but the way that Esther reacts to being walked in on. “You said you didn’t know how to play,” Kate says, bewildered and confused. Esther retorts something to the effect of, “No, I didn’t. I just thought you wanted to each me. It must be frustrating having such a passion for music as you do and having a son who doesn’t really care and a daughter who can barely hear.” Fuhrman says this with the confidence and assuredness of someone 22 years older than she. What’s disturbing is that she knows that that line is meant to sting and be instigative. Esther becomes increasingly articulate and abrasive, especially towards Kate.

The other scene involves Kate trying to address the fact that Esther walked in on her and John having sex in the kitchen. As she begins to relay the “Birds and the Bees” speech, Esther turns and interrupts her and says, without any emotion, “I know. They fuck.” This scene is essentially analyzed in the film itself, not so much winkingly (maybe one of the joys of the film is that it doesn’t wink at every turn), but is as much astonishment. “She knew what it meant,” Kate says, still shaken.

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That she is deliberately playing a child, regardless of the bizarre twist of the thing, is what makes the dissolution of the Coleman’s marriage so gripping to watch. It’s like watching an asshole son play each parent against one another in an attempt to keep the pieces for himself. Esther is able to hit the pressure points of the marriage like someone who is actually their child. She knows exactly what will break them down, especially Kate (the alcoholism, the stillborn child). But the demeaning, cruel way that she does it is something only an adult would do. Again, it’s this fascinating duality at play throughout the film, which is why something as ridiculous as this works.

While most evil children are Devil’s spawn in some manner or another, Orphan has the amusing distinction of not having any real distinction of why its antagonist is driven to kill. She’s just a psychopath and a past resident of an Estonian mental asylum. (The Black Widow meets Lolita aspect is, admittedly, both silly, dumb, shocking, and sort of unique.) But that very simplicity is kind of fascinating to watch as a child plays it. Sure, Fuhrman was 12 or 13 at the time, but her small frame and initially angelic look make each murder or act of disobedience more subversive. It’s disturbing watching someone that young hammer into a nun’s skull with little to no feeling. Yet it is also transfixing.

And maybe it’s because of that, and the performances allowing one to become more intimate with the family, that the stakes feel so much higher. Watching Esther push a kid off a slide is one thing (very odd), but seeing the threat of Max and Danny is another. Though they are hardly on an acting level in comparison to Fuhrman, that sadism still sends shivers down one’s spine.

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The twist of the film might be the draw for some people. It was for me. I can’t think of anything dumber and yet more alluring that a villainous child that turns out to be a 33 year old woman. On some level, I think the film knows that it’s a really stupid, vaguely deus ex machine kind of twist, it doesn’t feel the need to push at how self-aware it may or may not be. Orphan may be the first horror film in a long time to not rely on some kind of post-modern self-awareness and simply be a very good, earnest thriller.

Formally speaking, Orphan is conventional. It uses jump scares, POV shots, and runs the gamut of various thriller clichés. But it does occasionally experiment with sound. In a couple of key moments, we hear scenes from the point of view of Max, with nearly all diegetic sound cut off to at most a muffle. Though these are used in scenes where tension would normally be at a minimum, it adds an interesting element of the film, nearly amplifying the emotion/tension in their respective scenes.

But all of its formal pleasures and its tautness are derived from thinking, “Holy shit, this kid is insane.” As she tears a family apart and wreaks havoc wherever her tiny body takes her, there’s a strange satisfaction and hypnotic edge to watching a “child” so intelligent, they can bring down everyone around them.

P.S. I went in knowing the twist and I still enjoyed the fuck out of this film. Enough to curse multiple times in this piece.

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6 thoughts on “Little Orphan Crazy: The Perverse Pleasures of “Orphan”

    Brittani said:
    August 2, 2014 at 12:20 pm

    Awesome review! I went into this one thinking I’d hate it, and I was pleasantly surprised. This write up makes me want to watch it again.

      Kyle Turner responded:
      August 4, 2014 at 4:49 pm

      Thanks so much. I went in ready to hate it and knowing the twist ending, so I just kind of assumed it would be really dumb. But I was really impressed.

    kelleepratt said:
    August 4, 2014 at 6:32 am

    Me too. I’m kinda picky on ‘scary films’ and I really enjoyed this one. Nice write-up, Kyle.

      Kyle Turner responded:
      August 4, 2014 at 4:47 pm

      Thanks so much!

    Alex Withrow (@shiftingPersona) said:
    August 8, 2014 at 7:02 pm

    A great read my friend. “It helps that Farmiga and Sarsgaard give pretty incredible performance in what ostensibly amounts to a B-horror movie…”

    That’s the main reason why I like Orphan as much as I do. Those two really went for it, B-movie genre be damned. And I really appreciate what you said about the film’s use of non-diegetic sound. Scenes like that are how certain films excel from the genre they are stuck in. In fact, I really need to revisit this movie (I’ve seen it twice, when it first came out). It’d be fun watching it with this essay (and every great thing mentioned in it) on my mind.

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