Written by: David Johnson, Alex Mace
Directed by: Jaume Collet-Serra
Starring: Vera Farmiga, Peter Sarsgaard, and Isabelle Fuhrman
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman
"I have a special surprise for you, Mommy!"
Sometimes, a film announces its greatness so forcefully that it elbows itself right into the canon immediately. In recent years, films like Cabin in the Woods, You’re Next, and The Guest have left little doubt that they’ll endure as cult objects for decades to come. Most films, however, still have to take the traditional, more circuitous route that involves scratching and clawing their way to recognition. Orphan is definitely one of these cases.
When Jaume Collet-Sera’s film debuted over five years ago, it did so with little fanfare: box office receipts were unimpressive, and critical consensus was mixed. Even ardent genre fans (including yours truly) found it hard to get too excited about the umpteenth killer kid film (and the second in as many years to feature Vera Farmiga to boot). But those who gave it a shot were met with a film that was anything but the usual fare, and it must be definitively stated that Orphan is a positively weird, daring movie with one of the nuttiest climaxes in recent memory.
The rest of it is pretty solid, too, though, and a lot of the setup feels specifically engineered to prey on familiarity. Farmiga is Kate Coleman, a mother of two still recovering from a recent miscarriage. If that weren’t enough, she’s also a recovering alcoholic and is still haunted by an accident that almost claimed the life of her deaf daughter. Her marriage with her husband John (Peter Sarsgaard) is a bit rocky, and the two are unsure about adopting a child. But when they finally visit a local orphanage, they’re immediately taken with Esther (Isabelle Fuhrman), a 9-year-old Russian girl whose previous adoptive family died under mysterious circumstances. They bring her home, and she’s bright as hell: almost too bright, in fact, and she’s closely guarded and secretive, with a bit of a mean streak to boot.
I mean, that sounds like the structure for every single one of these things, right? Orphan continues to oblige by piling on more marital strife and shady behavior from Esther, and it does so without so much as a wink. It is a deadly serious creepy kid drama that largely shies away from schlock. Even when it has Esther walking in on her parents banging in the kitchen and discussing it with Kate later, it feels restrained, maybe even a little coy. Likewise, her murdering a nun is genuinely disturbing, especially when she makes the deaf daughter an accomplice. So much of this sounds outlandish, if not a little hilarious, but Collet-Sera isn’t interested in making a joke out of it: Orphan puts on a straight face and nimbly skips through the motions.
It does so with remarkable skill, though. Had Collet-Serra and company just lazily pandered to expectations without drawing the audience in with a solid foundation, it’s quite possible the deranged climax would fall flat. It needs something from which to come unhinged, after all. Instead, Farmiga and Fuhrman shoulder the film with fantastic performances that quickly establish the dynamic for Orphan: at no point does it degenerate into an empty schlock-fest where you want to watch a bunch of idiots die. Kate Coleman is far from an oblivious dope and logically acts like any mother would when she suspects someone intends to hurt their family: by calling them out and fiercely protecting themselves against them. Farmiga is convincingly desperate and authentically frazzled by the entire ordeal, which contributes to the film’s ratcheting suspense as it charges to its climax.
On the other hand, let’s not mince words about Esther: she is a little shit. A lying, manipulative little psycho with no redeemable qualities—she’s not possessed by a demon, nor is there any other supernatural explanation for her deviance—Esther is just delightfully evil. Her aforementioned murder of the nun is the first real signal that Orphan is going to blow past the point of no return. Once Esther completely reveals her hand, she sets herself to completely destroying the Colemans from within: first, she terrorizes her siblings, and then she begins to turn her parents against each other (poor John does remain hopelessly oblivious to Esther’s plans, though Skarsgaard remains sheepishly grounded enough so he isn’t a total clown). Fuhrman, who was only about 11 or 12 at the time of filming, is a spectacular chameleon capable of morphing from sweet, unassuming victim to snarling predator, sometimes within the span of a single scene. She’s infuriating and remarkable all at once, and she doesn’t even skip a beat during when the climax pushes her turn into some uncomfortable places.
All the while, Collet-Sera holds up his end by infusing the film with a palatably ominous mood. Situated from suburbia and tucked away in some remote hills, Orphan is perpetually grey and frigid during daylight hours and practically drowning in darkness once the sun sets. Collet-Sera’s camera weaves and roves throughout the Colemans’ posh dark house, finding fake menace in the most innocuous of tracking shots and unflinchingly capturing the very real horrors that unfold. Working from a tightly constructed script, he parcels out his reveals economically, revealing just enough to keep the audience both a step ahead and a step behind: they certainly know something is wrong with Esther when everyone else is ready to commit Kate for her ravings, but they’re not quite sure exactly what is wrong until a bonkers third-act reveal.
Up until that point, this is a film that playfully bides its time: it sucks you in and deceives you with its formula before finally springing its insane twists and turns on an audience that suddenly finds itself stranded in left field. Appropriately accented by thunder show, the freakish climax takes Orphan off the rails in the best way possible. Here, it finally embraces its ludicrous premise and delivers one shock after another. Even knowing the twist does little to prepare you for how jaw-droppingly outrageous it gets: there’s a hint of sex, the threat of murder, and a family showdown that results in literal ice-breaking exercises. The temptation to howl at it all feels like a stark departure from the previous 100 minutes, but it somehow feels right: Orphan giggles behind your back before it eventually lets you in on the joke.
You have to admire any film that goes this big and crazy, especially one that somehow snuck its way onto a major studio slate. Nearly six years later, this is arguably the most amazing thing about Orphan. With the current wide-release horror landscape having rotted into a fallow wasteland populated by formulaic and forgettable junk, we could use more jolts in the order of Orphan. What a wonderful, weird film it is. Since its release, Collet-Sera has churned out a trio of Liam Neeson vehicles, two of which (Non-Stop and Run All Night) have solidified his place as one of the more reliable genre directors working today. For now, though, Orphan stands as his undisputed, whacked out masterwork. Largely unheralded upon its release, it’s time to give it a home in the cult pantheon. Buy it!
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