Orphan (2009)

Orphan 2009 film review

Orphan (2009) Directed by Jaume Collet-Serra

“Psychopathic kids” or “diabolical kids” have been present in fictional stories since memorable times, it is a literary methodology that works internally in the structure of a narrative and externally articulates a thrillingly entertaining stimulus; after all, perverting the tender innocence and purity of a child into something to fear is something that generates undiminished macabre pleasure, positively for dark humor and negatively for moralism.

Orphan is a film built with just the right components to take enough pride in its high exposure of the paraphernalia of this kind of subgenre. It is a production that announces itself as the most clichéd horror film of all but with an alternate identity, carrying in its genes all the inherited stereotypes of the “killer kid” genre narratives only tells us that its genetics are the same and less strong, however, the pieces that constitute its hackneyed DNA are variegated for better and for worse, achieving an amorphous formation of highs and lows, that while it never appears to be authentic, neither does it try to be, and that swirling, uneven filmmaking consolidates two indisputably effective and productive strengths. Number one: the main character. Number two: the unexpectedly sly, dark humor.

However, those two beneficial elements shrink when you put them in contrast to the copious flaws. Developing an entire film where the mysterious, smart and eloquent, yet manipulative, little girl enters to disrupt the home of a family trying to overcome a tragedy is somewhat wickedly interesting, but when the writing has devoted all its effort to just the succinct and primary content of the story and forgotten about the characters involved in it, that’s when you inevitably realize you’re in a redundant plot that frequently repeats the same act after act just to warm up for the eventual plot twist and release it when it is most advantageous to do so. It is notorious though that most of the imperfections are in the writing, that is proven even in the murderous two hours of duration; note well that a while ago I wrote “succinct content”, yes, it is a brief plot, something like a short story for a paperback book, yet ironically the filmmakers translated that as an inept prolongation of narrative that at the end of it all comes to nothing more than a gigantic artificiality.

The traumatized Kate Coleman, played by a thunderous Vera Farmiga, as the next step in overcoming the devastating tragedy of losing her child to stillbirth, decides with her husband John Coleman, played by Peter Sarsgaard, to give the love and affection they would have liked to give their child to another who has never had that kind of parental love. So they choose to adopt a 9-year-old Russian girl, the witty and artistically prodigious Esther, played with both creepy wickedness and specious gentility by Isabelle Fuhrman. The autodidact and sharp-eyed Esther manages to quickly sympathize with the Colemans’ youngest daughter, now her stepsister, although with her stepbrother she fails to connect affably. The suspense escalates menacingly as family life becomes hostile and the emotional atmosphere increasingly sinister. Due to the constant fights in which Esther is involved, and the radical changes of Kate’s two children since Esther joined the family, Kate’s maternal instinct begins to suspect her and she is forced to uncover the secrecy surrounding this enigmatic girl’s past.

There is a mordant and malevolent delight in the central ideas of the plot, among them the simple fact of watching a film where the magnanimous and benign act of a family that decides to adopt an orphan girl with the best of intentions is subverted in a dark feast of sordidness and campy stupidity assaulting the intimate atmosphere of a scourged American family, recovering from a traumatic past. Rough but amusing touches like that there are many, though if I had to stick with one it would be witnessing the maniacal Esther with her naive little stepsister committing crimes in complicity, something that evokes the vile pantomime of the classic horror film duos that follow the same patterns, Frankenstein/Igor. Hilariously diverting.

Frustratingly, it remains only a hermetic entertainment, doggedly closed with its psychological horror mechanisms that wrap up the family drama deftly in order to later unleash the histrionics of the final bloody acts. I have a rather mixed perspective regarding the functions that the tragic family drama has with the stealthy suspense, obviously both are synthesized in an explosive senseless terror, which is “fine”, but the poignant gravity of the plot and the grievous tragedy is posed from a contradictory attitude to the implausibility of its conclusion; the formless direction of Jaume Collet-Serra seems to collide brusquely with these two factions that never take a limpid and solid communication.

Perhaps it’s a film that forces itself too much by wanting to externalize a clichéd story with circuitous details just to distract us and hit us at the convenient moment. Brilliant fun when you see the imperfections as stylish tools yet flawed when you analyze them. Still, in this film is born a remarkable performance by, at the time a neophyte actress, Isabelle Fuhrman, who provides an outstanding personality to this patchy film.


Matteo Bedon
About Author

When I'm not watching and studying films, I'm writing about them.
Part-time essayist and full-time film critic.