Kate: When grownups love each other very, very much… they want to show each other that love; they want to express it…
Esther: I know. They fuck.
Justin recommended Orphan the other day. I wasn’t jazzed on the idea – a movie about an evil little orphan, adopted by an upper middle class white family doesn’t seem like a winner. It’s released by Dark Castle Entertainment, the studio responsible for Ghost Ship and the House on Haunted Hill remake; not a company that bolsters confidence. Faced with limited option at the Redbox, we picked Orphan. We expected a feminine take on the mediocre Macaulay Culkin/Elijah Wood film The Good Son. Instead we received a great horror/thriller, complete with unpredictable twists, albeit a bit far-fetched, that was genuinely frightening and well made.
Kate and John (Vera Farmiga and Peter Saragaard) Coleman are in the adoption market. Years earlier Kate suffered a miscarriage, became an alcoholic, and almost ruined her family; John cheated on Kate. Their relationship has mended and they pursue adoption. Visiting a local orphanage (complete with nuns) they find Esther (Isabelle Fuhrman), a Russian urchin wise beyond her years and highly intelligent. Wearing old fashioned clothes, ribbons on her neck and wrists, and incredibly charming, Esther captivates the Coleman’s. Esther’s artwork (which is actually pretty good) and demeanor impresses Kate and John who feel a bond with the young girl. The adoption goes forward, Esther comes to their almost unbelievably perfect Connecticut home, and the Coleman’s add a third child to their family.
The latest addition doesn’t mesh perfectly with Kate and John’s two biological kids: Daniel, a surly tween and Max, a precocious deaf child around five or six. Max and Esther bond quickly but Daniel is skeptical immediately – he smells a rat. The film portrays Esther as a little weird but normal; the other characters and editing give the impression she’s evil, not her actions. Don’t let this deceive you – Esther is pure evil. After a classmate pick on her for her clothes and religion (she carries around an old Bible), Esther pushes the child down a tall slide at the playground, breaking her leg. Kate’s suspicious; nobody else is and any uncertainty whether Esther’s a victim of circumstance and clever editing goes right out the window. From this point forward Esther is insane. Esther’s a psychopath, using people for her own violent gains.
It turns out Esther’s from Estonia, not Russia, was in a foreign insane asylum for killing at least seven people, and is 33 years old – the result of some rare disease making her look like a child. She has all the emotions of a thirty something woman, trapped in the body of a child. Prior to this coming out, Esther kills a nun, enlists Max for help hiding the body, points a gun at Max, almost burns Daniel alive in his tree house and then smothers him with a pillow in the hospital, finally convincing John and Kate’s psychiatrist that Kate’s insane and off the wagon. After a violent outburst against Esther at the hospital, Kate’s given a sedative and admitted for the evening. Waking up in a partially drugged stupor, Kate receives a phone call from the Estonian mental facility regarding Esther, finding out all the sordid details of her past: she’s a mass murderer, has passed herself off as a child for years, killing her adopted fathers when they reject her sexual advances. This is where the film becomes even more interesting, since it switches from a basic evil child story into a bizarre Electra complex tale.
A scene between John and Esther is particularly disturbing and thought provoking. Esther’s presented as a child for the whole film and even though it’s revealed she isn’t, the idea that she’s an adult just doesn’t come across. Fuhrman, about 12 years old when the film hit theaters, is a child even though she’s playing a 33 year old woman. Suspending any belief that she’s an adult is difficult, especially in her confrontation with John. She comes on to him, asking how she can sexually please him and it’s impossible to believe she’s not a kid. This creates incredible discomfort, since watching a child exhibit such overt sexuality is awkward. This works incredibly for the film, making it even creepier and adding to its impact – before this scene the movie’s a really well done thriller copying a trope from The Bad Seed, The Good Son, and other orphan films. Afterwards it’s a totally different film, exploring the nature of appearance and asking whether a person’s exterior form trumps their interior. No matter how much make-up, appliances, and ribbons Esther wears she’s still a 33 year old woman, completely deranged. The film doesn’t ask whether the disease is the culprit for her madness, but I’ll willingly wager it is.
This theme raises questions regarding the quest for youth in our society. If we receive eternal youth is it worth it? Esther obtains this and it drives her mad. Millions pursue a physical manifestation of youth, spending thousands of dollars in the vain attempt. Mostly they look ridiculous – Michael Jackson, Joan Rivers, and Carrot Top immediately come to mind – but nonetheless they still try. It’s probably a billion dollar industry in the West, exciting people from all walks of life and every age group to enhance their natural appearance. However, the result is always futile; age catches up and no amount of Botox or facelifts will change the inevitable. Esther’s curse is America’s dream taken to an extreme – the constant barrage of commercial attacks on aging gone askew, pushing those false promises back into the faces of those promising a De Leonian myth. What I originally thought would be a mediocre horror film is instead a truly frightening film asking very prominent questions about the world we live in.
The film’s conclusion, involving a standoff between Kate and Esther, is actually very unpredictable. Having seen a litany of horror/thriller films throughout my life I still didn’t see the culmination of the film’s third act going where it did. While somewhat unrealistic, the confrontation’s zenith is intense and keeps going and going. When you think it’s over, it isn’t, still bringing terror and anxiety with each second. The film ends a bit obscurely, potentially leaving room for a sequel, although I believe a sequel would damage an already good film. Personally I think Fuhrman deserves an Oscar nomination for her role; her performance proves not all children are bad actors, just most. Even though the roles aren’t really similar, Fuhrman’s performance as Esther brings to mind Linda Blair’s portrayal of Regan in William Friedkin’s The Exorcist. Both young ladies bring believability to the roles that even some adult actors can’t do. Even if the plot for the film doesn’t work for you, Fuhrman’s acting should incite a viewing of this film, since her performance is amazing and it can rouse legitimate debate on many social issues in our society.
Here’s the trailer