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123 min.
Release Date

For some moviegoers, seeing Orphan might be a silly enterprise. They would be going just to have fun and probably laugh at some ridiculous horror nonsense. But this isn’t one of those eye-rolling, cookie-cutter experiences like so much from this genre today. Rather, director Jaume Collet-Serra has constructed an intelligent, disturbing thriller that builds tension slowly and meticulously. It involves us on unexpected emotional levels, making us care about characters instead of just calculating a body count, and therein sends us writhing in our seats from the perpetual sense of unease and growing shock.

In the first scene, Kate and John Coleman (Vera Farmiga and Peter Sarsgaard) arrive at the hospital so she can give birth to their third child, who they discover has tragically died in her womb. Years later, when they’re ready, they decide to adopt. At the orphanage, they come upon the Russian orphan Esther (Isabelle Fuhrman), a well-mannered and intelligent 9-year-old. They find her painting by herself, away from the other kids. Since Kate used to teach music at Yale and John draws architectural schematics, the fit seems natural. They bring Esther home to meet their two biological children, the impetuous adolescent Daniel (Jimmy Bennett, the young Kirk from Star Trek) and his younger deaf sister Max (Aryana Engineer). Esther has even learned some basic signs on the ride home for Max’s benefit. How charming and considerate.

But there’s something about Esther that doesn’t quite sit right. Why is she the only child to never paint outside the lines? Why does she never remove the ribbons around her neck and wrists? Why does she only wear dresses that look best suited for a storybook character? Max seems happy just to have a sister to play with, whereas Daniel is more skeptical. John believes Esther’s eccentricities are those of an understandably complicated youth jarred by a life of being shipped around from Russian orphanages to American ones. Boy, is he wrong.

Kate doesn’t trust her, and in fact, she believes Esther responsible for several unfortunate accidents that have occurred lately: A girl at the playground slips off the slide. A nun goes missing. Then the new parents learn Esther’s family burned up in an arson fire. Kate remains the film’s center, looked upon with suspicion because her once alcoholic ways still potentially threaten her family’s stability. Esther knows this somehow and exploits John’s doubts about his wife. As the family members get pulled further and further apart, Esther enjoys herself all the more, manipulating them to frightening extremes. The film builds to a last-half that’s unsettling.

Inside the script live three-dimensional characters that feel authentic and draw out our sympathies. But the actors deserve much credit for elevating the material. Without their class, the story could’ve turned into a series of stereotypes. Consider Farmiga, who’s given strong performances in The Departed and Nothing But the Truth. She emotes enough in her expressive eyes to earn our compassion, forcing us to care as much about her character’s struggle with alcoholism as we do her predicament with her psycho adopted child. Sarsgaard makes his husband role understandably cold and distrustful toward his wife, given her history, though he should really trust her when she says Esther needs help. Really. However, it should be noted that the twelve-year-old unknown Fuhrman steals the show, not only by communicating a pitch-perfect Russian accent but by making the freaky twist ending utterly believable. You’ll understand when you see it.

Compare this film to Roman Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby, not only because they’re both disturbing films about the creepy possibilities of children, but because they both contain equal parts dramatic resonance and ghastly terror. Both take their time setting up fleshed-out characters that we care about, get more and more bizarre as the film progresses, and then suddenly become nightmares from which there’s no return. Both have very sudden climaxes, although Polanski’s film eases away, whereas this makes an abrupt transition to the credits that should’ve been filtered with one last scene.

Orphan plays with audience expectation and avoids cliché setups when possible, and therefore it concentrates more on creating a sophisticated, layered psychological thriller around your typical bad seed yarn. You’ve seen kids gone bad before in movies, from The Omen to The Good Son, but none will so effectively get under your skin the way this one will. Your stomach will knot up, gasp in shock, and perhaps even cover your eyes. And then, after it’s finished, it lingers with you for hours, if not days afterward, itching at you and not letting you forget it. If only more horror movies could be as successfully scary and as emotionally satisfying as this one.

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