For the first time I’ve reviewed a film for Pajiba in theaters, there weren’t a few children being obnoxious throughout. It seems even those parents are unwilling to take their monstrous offspring to a film actually about an evil child. Wouldn’t want to give the creatures any ideas now.
Orphan opens with a thoroughly disturbing dream sequence of a violent stillbirth that is treated almost as routine by the masked doctors and even the clueless husband, videotaping the bloody proceedings and reassuring her “you’re doing great honey!” It’s a grotesquely macabre way of introducing the couple at the center of the story, an over-the-top exaggeration of the issues and darkness that they have up front, so they can be hinted at effectively throughout the first half of the film.
John (Peter Sarsgaard) and Kate (Vera Farmiga) lost their third child to stillbirth and seek to adopt an older child since they have such a harder time finding a home. They find a charming young girl at an orphanage run by an order of nuns, headed up by C.C.H. Pounder, who is really making the rounds with the conclusion of “The Shield” last year. Esther (Isabelle Fuhrman) is quickly adopted by the Colemans, taken home, and introduced to their other two children, young teen son Daniel (Jimmy Bennett) and a younger deaf daughter Max (Aryana Engineer). Max is taken with the charming Esther and gradually becomes her partner in small mischief that seems like a game. Daniel is less than welcoming, not because he sees through Esther’s façade, but because he’s a realistically drawn teen boy, disgusted by Esther’s old fashioned clothing and odder behaviors.
What makes Esther work as a horror character is that her actions make sense within the context of her own logic. She might be nuts, but she’s still perfectly rational. The young actress Fuhrman does an excellent job of portraying a sociopathic youth, getting across why sociopathy is such a terrifying phenomenon. She leaps from utterly emotionless, to genuinely sweet and kind, to violently angry and back again with little more than changes in facial expression. She may be just a child, but she is terrifying precisely because she isn’t creepy most of the time. You knew Damien from The Omen was fucked up from the first minute you laid eyes on him. Esther is so persuasively sweet and victimized for the first part of the film, that by half an hour into it I found myself wondering if the film was setting up a double twist in which Esther was not actually crazy at all. She nervously learns bits and pieces of sign language on the way home for the first time to talk to her new deaf sister. She is articulate and persuasive about why she likes to wear old fashioned clothes. She is terrorized by the other girls and boys at school, breaking down into horrifying screams. Fuhrman throughout seems like a much older actress than her 12 years. Without spoiling anything, the last half hour of the film sees her put on a phenomenally disturbing transformation.
The acting throughout is simply top rate. The other two child actors are asked to carry a great deal of the film, which they do extraordinarily well, conveying the terrified helplessness with which they are cowed by Esther. Vera Farminga and Peter Sarsgaard hold up the adult end of the movie as well, constructing deep and three-dimensional characters who are very flawed, share a fluid comfort with each other, and implode as a couple along fault lines that feel genuinely human and complicated rather than convenient and forced. The film takes its time setting up these characters so that once stuff starts to go horribly wrong we empathize with them, even with Esther. Her first acts of violence are even understandable to a degree. The time taken with characterization allows later actions that are at face value completely harmless, such as picking some flowers, take on abject personal horror for the characters. The beauty of the plot throughout is in the level of manipulation exercised by Esther to drive wedges between other characters and use their own words against them. From the mouths of babes …
The last quarter of the film has significant plotting problems though, which keep the film from being nearly as good in sum as the excellence of many of its parts might suggest. It falls into the horror trope of revealing everything with half an hour or so left and then trapping the characters in the dark house at night, jumping at shadows, and fighting the suddenly unstoppable boogeyman. There is no suspense but who will die and how, and which apparent death of the antagonist will actually stick. Horror film makers: quit doing this. Retire the showdown-in-the-dark-house ending and use that half an hour for actual advancement of the plot. Throw in another twist for good measure, or hold off fully revealing the twist for a bit longer.
All in all, this was a much better film than I expected from its trailer and press, which just seemed to be for the vaguely ominous “evil child” movie that seems to come out every year or two. The acting and slow build up of characterization and tension in the first half are masterfully done and well worth watching, but be prepared to be disappointed with the clichéd ending. I am now going to get a black light though to double check all of my step-daughter’s drawings for invisible murderous additions.
Steven Lloyd Wilson is the last scion of Norse warriors and the forbidden elder gods. He is a hopeless romantic who can be found wandering San Diego’s strip malls and suburbs looking for his mislaid soul and waiting for the revolution to come. Burning Violin is still published weekly on Wednesdays at www.burningviolin.com, along with assorted fiction and other ramblings.