Orphan (2009)

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Directed by Jaume Collet-Sera
Written by David Leslie Johnson

Rated R

Vera Farmiga as Kate Coleman
Peter Sarsgaard as John Coleman
Isabelle Fuhrman as Esther
Jimmy Bennett as Danny Coleman
Aryana Engineer as Max Coleman
CCH Pounder as Sister Abigail
Margo Martindale as Dr. Browning

There’s something wrong with Esther.

The above is the tagline for this film. And boy, is there ever. Horror films with diabolical children at the center often make for great entertainment (see: The Bad Seed, The Exorcist, The Omen). Orphan is not only great entertainment, it’s also a truly frightening film.

The Coleman family is looking to expand. John (Peter Sarsgaard) persuades Kate (Vera Farmiga) it will be a good idea to adopt a child. Kate recently suffered a traumatic miscarriage. Indeed, she is seeking to shift the love they felt for the lost child to orphaned child in need of a home. They go to an orphanage, overseen by the wise and caring Sister Abigail (CCH Pounder). John immediately connects with Esther (Isabelle Fuhrman), a shy but articulate nine-year-old girl from Russia. Her English is impressive, and her talent for painting is even more inspiring.

Three weeks later, the Colemans welcome Esther into their family. Son Danny (Jimmy Bennett) doesn’t like Esther’s strange wardrobe, dubbed “Little Bo-Peep” by a classmate who later receives a comeuppance. Young Max (Aryana Engineer) is an adorable little girl, and even though her deafness is a huge hint that it will factor into the suspense quotient, the film does not exploit her hearing loss.

There’s some backstory with the Colemans. Kate was so devastated by the loss of her unborn daughter, she developed a drinking problem. A former Yale music professor, Kate is thrilled when Esther expresses a desire to learn piano. Trouble is, Esther already knows how to play. More trouble: a bully at school attempts to touch the ribbon around Esther’s neck, and Esther screams violently. Said little bully has an unfortunate fall at a playground sometime later. Kate’s psychiatrist, Dr. Browning (the great character actress Margo Martindale), means well, but she’s a paint-by-numbers film shrink, tossing out lots of advice without ever really listening. It seems where Esther goes, trouble follows. She’s no angel.

Kate suspects something is amiss, but John finds Esther charming and harmless. It’s an uphill battle for Kate, the recovering alcoholic, to ultimately save her family. Yes, Orphan is a horror film, and there are gruesome scenes and disturbing revelations. Farmiga is terrific in this role, very similar to her role in 2007’s little-seen thriller Joshua. More recently, she starred in 2013’s The Conjuring, and she is garnering acclaim as iconic “Mother” Norma Bates on television’s Bates Motel. Does Farmiga have a thing for horror films? I don’t know, but she’s darn good in them. Let’s not forget her convincing dramatic work in Down to the Bone, The Departed, and Higher Ground, which she directed. She’s been nominated for an Oscar, too, for the comedy Up in the Air.

The role of Esther is tricky, given how the character’s details are laced in secrecy. Young Isabelle Fuhrman is chilling as Esther, a role reminiscent of a little Bad Seed, circa 2009. Fuhrman played another sinister role in the first Hunger Games film, and she’s set to co-star in an adaptation of Stephen King’s bestseller Cell. I’m interested in following her career. She’s an actress to watch, and she gives a bravura performance in this movie.

I liked Stormare, too. He’s a good actor as well, most recently as a death row convict on AMC’s The Killing. His character is so well-meaning and patient, it’s maddening. We learn he did not escape from having a blemished past, either. No matter. The story here is about Esther, and how she is bound and determined to become part of the Coleman family, at whatever deadly cost.

Orphan is a first-rate horror film, one of the best in years. See it. But don’t take the kids.

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