The original post was published on July 24, 2019 under “Editorials” at Bloody-Disgusting.com.
Something is wrong with Esther, alright.
Released on this day 10 years ago, Jaume Collett-Serra’s unique twist on the bad seed subgenre, Orphan, pummeled its way into theaters after weeks of both anticipation and controversy, going on to earn $78 million at the box office over its relatively modest budget. Both influenced by, yet also a subversion of the tropes of previous films such as The Bad Seed, The Omen, and The Good Son— and undoubtedly affecting the coldness within this year’s The Prodigy— Orphan is one of the more memorable psychological horror efforts we were given in 2009.
If you need a refresher, when a family of four makes the decision to adopt an older child after suffering the loss of their unborn daughter, they get more than what they bargained for with 9-year-old Esther (Isabelle Fuhrman)— a bright, raven-haired Russian orphan with a flair for painting and a seemingly charming maturity to boot. Of course, things start to go awry for the family shortly after they bring Esther into their home, and as matriarch Kate (Vera Farmiga) and father John (Peter Sarsgaard) disagree on what kind of child they each perceive Esther to be, their family begins to crack, as Esther’s true intentions and identity are revealed in one of the most what the fuck endings in recent memory.
What makes Orphan work on a poignant level is its group of primarily fleshed-out characters whose fates you feel invested in. In particular, we are consistently on Farmiga’s Kate’s side, even when others who should be are not (like her own damn husband and the family therapist.) A once successful piano teacher at Yale, Kate has become a recovering alcoholic after the death of stillborn Jessica, as well as a near-drowning accident involving daughter Max that Kate blames herself for. Whether we are parents or not, we can identify with Kate, because she’s imperfect. She has suffered from a lot of internal and external tragedies, and she’s just simply trying her best. When we first meet her, she experiences nightmares from PTSD and wants to do something positive with her pain by giving an orphaned child a home, which is something not all of us have the bravery to do.
Her husband John, albeit loving and laidback, comes off as a tad selfish. He seems to be more concerned about getting laid than the issues arising within his family unit— especially after Esther’s arrival— and not just because Esther acts differently around him, but because he sees what he wants to see within her. The dude is in complete denial. The film later reveals that John once had an extramarital affair, which Esther discovers and exploits, to cause the two spouses to argue. Son Daniel (Jimmy Bennett) is visibly envious of the attention that close-in-age Esther gets as she worms her way into the family dynamic, and youngest daughter Max (Aryana Engineer) looks up to her new sister, as she also possesses a disability, even though Esther’s is not as easy to spot at first glance. By placing this family into an already emotionally vulnerable state of their grief and past strife, the film is almost cruel when it plays on their fears, punishing them for doing a good thing and welcoming a stranger into their home.
Orphan further elevates itself with its performances, which likely would have made it pretty schlocky had it lacked. Vera Farmiga’s committed turn as Kate likely helped Farmiga land one of her most notable roles to date as Lorraine Warren in The Conjuring four years after Orphan’s release. And, most notably, the performance from the young Isabelle Fuhrman as the deeply troubled Esther was almost too good to be true. Let’s be honest, child actors’ performances can make or break, but Fuhrman as Esther is transcending. From her moments of false charm as she curtsies and smiles, to her glaring stares at Kate when she challenges her— not one moment in Fuhrman’s performance feels tacked on. The young actress exceeds at this multi-faceted character that could be mentioned in the same breath as the performances from others like Patty McCormack in The Bad Seed and Harvey Stephens in The Omen. I mean, who could forget that snarl on her face when she takes off her disguise and smashes her belongings into her mirror?
Sure, it employs some unnecessary, cheap jump scares throughout, but when it wants to get dirty, it doesn’t mess around. At just the right pace, the tension builds, as its more subtly chilling moments, like when Kate catches Esther flawlessly playing Tchaikovsky after pretending not to know how to play piano, become increasingly deadlier. In one of the film’s most unforgettable moments, poor Sister Abigail (CCH Pounder) felt quite the literal blows of Esther’s rage when she pays the family a visit and admits Esther may be more detrimental than she initially realized. After some conniving, Esther tricks the nun into getting out of her car and sneaks up behind her, with hammer in hand. We wince while watching, as we sympathetically feel every blow, and Sister Abigail’s undeserving blood splatters across Esther’s face. Gives me chills every time.
But Orphan is not without its flaws. The dope of a dad John is infuriatingly naïve. The movie suffers from an occasional lack of believability. The editing during pivotal moments of Isabelle Fuhrman’s doubles standing in for her is way too noticeable. And yes, its messaging can be considered problematic at times, which we’ll dig into.
Many of the most beloved movies in this genre typically offend somebody, and in this case, the backlash was warranted in some ways. Prior to the film’s release, several United States senators and members of the House of Representatives penned a letter to the studio heads at Warner Bros., expressing their concern that the film would discourage families from adopting children, particularly those from foreign countries. And there was definitely merit to the controversy: the film’s original marketing campaign displayed somewhat of an “adoption= you’re screwed” diction. Warner Bros. was eventually coerced into removing the line, “It must be hard to love an adopted child as much as your own” from the movie’s theatrical trailer and posters. The film’s DVD smartly contains a pro-adoption message to viewers.
Where things really start to get icky is within this exploration of this complicated, Freudian, adoptive mother-daughter relationship between Kate and Esther. Esther is of superior intellect: she preys on everyone’s weaknesses, mainly to use as a distraction, so she can run amuck and do what she needs to do to obtain her ultimate goal, which is to get everyone out of her way and seduce John. After one scene in which Esther catches Kate and John having sex in the kitchen (a ballsy move when you have three kids) Kate tries to console her and she coldly responds, “I know. (Grown-ups) fuck.” As we come to find out, Esther is resentful towards Kate’s advances of being a loving mother towards her because she hates that Kate and John share a primarily loving marriage, and it infuriates her when Kate gets in the way of her subtle advances towards John. Holy dysfunctional. Like the little jerk that she is, she purposely picks the white roses from the ashes of stillborn Jessica’s garden to piss Kate off, and secretly breaks her own arm (to make it look like Kate did it) in order for John to defend Esther and to put a wedge between her mother and father. It’s all the more disturbing when Esther puts on her full face of makeup and black dress and makes her way to seducing John— which grossly edges on pedophilia— until we learn that Esther isn’t quite who we think she is. Thankfully.
Of course, the shocking reveal of it all is that Esther is actually a 33-year-old woman named Leena with a rare condition called hypopituitarism, which has stunted her growth, and she uses this to exploit families into adopting her. As stellar as Fuhrman is in this role, does the film cross moral boundaries by having a then-11-year-old child actor partake in these behaviors that Esther was written to have? Is it problematic to have a minor actor (pretend) to bash a nun’s head in with a hammer or to hit on her on-screen dad? Some critics panned Orphan’s “twist” ending at the time, criticizing that, by Esther not being a child after all was just a cheap cop-out and an excuse for making it acceptable for a child actor to do some despicable stuff on-screen (and I wouldn’t totally disagree). But none of us saw that final reveal coming, and it was so chilling that I would argue it partly makes up for these issues. After all, we probably wouldn’t have horror movies at all if we didn’t explore the horrible depths of humanity— no matter what age the antagonists are.
With both its strengths and its blemishes, 2009’s Orphan still holds up as an awesomely fun addition to the killer kid subgenre, which, at the time, was stale. Here’s hoping we don’t have to wait another 10 years for Leonardo DiCaprio, of all people, to serve as a producer on another future horror film. (True story!)~