Friday, July 31, 2009

Orphan (Jaume Collet-Serra, 2009)

An adorable, perfectly sane little girl forced to subsist in a secluded den of yuppie vulgarity is the loopy premise of the straightforwardly titled Orphan, a refreshing throwback to the simplistic films of yesteryear... you know, the one's that pitted wholesome youngsters against their narcissistic parents. Following up his underrated redo of House of Wax, director Jaume Collet-Serra, and his crack team of typewriter enthusiasts, have fashioned a classy domestic horror film. Sure, it had me rooting for the wrong character to win the day. But the fact that I had any interest whatsoever in who came out on top in the end is testament to the skill that went into making this chilly tale about a pair of egotistical parents who attempt to stifle a little girls individuality, all the while, trying to take away her inherent right to kill nosy nuns with a hammer. Of course, I realize how strange it must sound for me to be using such negative sounding words to describe the parents and positive ones to describe someone who is clearly the villain of the piece. But I assure you, my reasoning is quite levelheaded. Boasting sharp camera work, a wintry setting (the snowy forests located around the family's lavish property were wonderfully creepy), a surprisingly strong group of actors, and just the right amount of cheap jump scares, this film might have camp classic written all over it (the stark image of Esther on the poster and intriguing tag line practically scream tawdry trash). However, based on the strength of the elements I just listed, this fidgety enterprise has the potential to bridge the cavernous gap that keeps kiddie-exploitation flicks and so-called "prestige pictures" from tasting each other's saliva.

The film centres around a couple of whiny crybabies (you see, very negative sounding) named John (Peter Sarsgaard) and Kate Coleman (Vera Farmiga) who live in this obscene home located in the woods with their son Daniel (Jimmy Bennett) and hearing impaired daughter Maxine (the excellent Aryana Engineer). Recovering from the loss of her third child (still born) and a bout with alcoholism, Kate decides she is ready to get back in the parenting game. Now, I'm not quite sure why they needed another kid in the house (the two they already have seemed fine and dandy). But either way, the peculiar Esther (Isabelle Fuhrman) ends up being their kid of choice during a quick stop at the local orphanage.

Before anyone can wonder aloud: Why does our newly adopted daughter dress like it's 1889? Esther is pretty much running things at the Coleman household. Pitting her parents against one another, forming an alliance with Maxine, and eliminating external threats with a bloodthirsty efficiency (the kid being stalked in that medieval looking jungle gym didn't stand a chance), the uniquely attired little scamp is always lurking in the background.

Whether watching John and Kate fornicate in the kitchen or utilizing Max's lipreading ability in the produce section, Esther is keening aware of what is going on around her at all times. She's got a secret to protect, and is not about to let some pill popping Lexus driver with dreamy eyes unveil her sinister plans.

The kinship I felt towards Isabelle Fuhrman's Esther was kinda scary. Seriously, she looked like my long lost twin sister. Yeah, it's true, I never dressed like I was in a very Gothic version of Anne of Green Gables. But in terms of genetic structure, it was like staring into a freaking mirror. Everything from the menacing glare to her penchant for deviousness was exactly the same.

This affinity for Esther's physical appearance goes a long way in explaining why as to I was hoping her scheming and manipulating would be successful. Which says a lot, since I'm a big fan of Peter Sargaard and Vera Farmiga – the two actors bring some much needed weightiness to the dramatic scenes. Yet, despite this fandom, I couldn't wait for little Esther to bring some Eastern European comeuppance down on their self-absorbed asses.

Appearances aside, the amazing, award worthy performance turned in by Isabelle Fuhrman cannot be discounted. It's one thing to look odd and strange, it's quite another to fully inhabit a character. And Isabelle does so with a depraved ease. She nonchalantly says "fuck," threatens to castrate her brother, shares some disconcerting couch time with a drunk Sargaard, has a massive temper tantrum in a public toilet (her screeching was exquisite), and knows her way around a vise-grip; in other words: a well-rounded piece of brainsick acting.

The scene in Orphan I found to be the most telling was the one where Esther gleefully watches her brother's pathetic attempt to escape a perilous situation she had a hand in creating. You see, Esther is an industrious person who doesn't rely on technology to get things done (I admired her use of hammers, knives, ribbons, and other items to move her perverted plot forward). Her brother, however, has spent so much time playing video games that simulate what's it like to be a rock star, that he has completely lost the ability to adapt to unforeseen events in the real world. I saw this to be a subtle jab at today's gadget obsessed youth, with Esther the crazed orphan representing a simpler time when people took a more hands on approach to being evil and junk. And I'll admit, I sure miss those days.


  1. As much as I dig Sarsgaard and Farmiga, I can't say I'm interested in seeing this film, but as usual, I enjoyed your awesomely entertaining review.

    "Her brother, however, has spent so much time playing video games that simulate what's it like to be a rock star, that he has completely lost the ability to adapt to unforeseen events in the real world."


  2. Great review. I had been wondering if this was any good or not. I knew I was intrigued by what I had seen. Plus I liked the poster.

  3. Kamir: I'll admit, I couldn't believe Sarsgaard and Farmiga were in this movie.

    You liked that, eh? In retrospect, maybe I shouldn't have been so hard Guitar Hero players. I mean, at least you have to stand up to play it.

    A video for The Big Supreme's "Don't Walk" on YouTube.

    It looks like the garbage strike is over. Yay!

    Keith: Thanks, man. It was the film's poster that initially sparked my interest.

  4. Now I feel so weird because I saw that picture of Sasha Grey at the bottom of your review and for a second, I thought it was Isabelle Fuhrman. That was a creepy few seconds.

  5. I thought the same about the Sasha Grey pic.

    If I have a child, I hope it is evil. Then we'd have something in common.

  6. The reasoning behind my posting of that particular Sasha Grey picture was based purely on my misguided desire to illicit creepy thoughts from others.

    By the way, cool Baroness pics, Darius.

  7. Sasha Grey elicits creepy thoughts from me all the time.

  8. i'm seeing this tonite and mostly on the strength of yer endorsement. that and there's nothing else worthwhile playing.

    by the by i dropped an award your way. check my blog post dated 8/09 if yer so inclined. you earned it.