CINEMA KNIFE FIGHT: ORPHAN
by Michael Arruda and L.L. Soares
(THE SCENE: A classroom, with the desks full of kids. In the front of the room L.L. SOARES is speaking to them.)
LS: Okay, class, today we’re going to have Show and Tell! And our first student will be little Mikey Arruda. Come to the front of the class, Mikey!
(MIKEY ARRUDA squeezes out from the child’s chair and goes to the front of the room.)
LS: What do you have for us today?
MA (in little boy voice): I drew a picture.
LS: Can you show it to the class?
(MA unfolds picture and hands it to LS.)
LS (Eyes bulging as he sees drawing of nude woman): Whoa, baby! Let’s not show that to the class just yet. Good old Mr. Soares is going to put this away into his private collect— er, into the trash can. Naughty, naughty, little Mikey. What on earth were you thinking?
MA: I was thinking about the movie we’re reviewing.
MA: ORPHAN. There are some drawings like this in the film, and I wanted to explain the connection between this gag—.
LS (rolling eyes): For crying out loud! Do you have to explain everything? (Looks at camera) Does he have to explain everything? (to Mikey) Can’t you just stay in character and let the gag play out?
MA: It’s hard playing a little kid.
LS: Quit your whining! I played a baby in the last column!
MA (sighs): Yup, playing kids is no easy task. It takes a damned village. Or is it a village of the damned? (grins devilishly).
LS: Oh stop that grinning devilishly stuff! I’m moving on with the review.
ORPHAN is the tale of little Esther Coleman, a delightful little girl who is nothing but peaches and cream. But her name isn’t Coleman right off the bat. First she has to get adopted by the nice Coleman family. There’s Momma Kate (Vera Farmiga) who is so pretty, but sometimes she drinks too much when she thinks about her third child, little Jessica, who was born dead (in a nightmarish scene that begins the film). There’s Daddy John (Peter Sarsgaard) who wants his family to be whole again. Then there’s cute little Maxine (Aryana Engineer), known as Max, who is almost completely deaf and uses sign language, and sulky pre-teen Daniel (Jimmy Bennett) who seems to play Guitar Hero 24 hours a day. As Kate says early on, it’s like she had all this love to give baby Jessica, and she wants to give it to someone else instead, so they look into adopting a child from an orphanage.
And that is where we meet inquisitive little Esther (Isabelle Fuhrman), who paints so very well for a child and who is quite mature for her age. It’s clear she’s an outsider, since she doesn’t run around and play with the other children. But it’s her very outsiderness that draws Kate and John to her. They seem to connect right away, and suddenly nervous Kate is very happy they considered adoption.
But, as is the way with these stories, little Esther is not the sweetheart she appears to be. That cute little Russian accent may have fooled us at first, but not for long. You see, bad things start happening, and some people even start turning up dead, and all of the clues seem to point to poor misunderstood Esther, which is most unfortunate.
Personally, I’ve always been a big fan of the evil kid genre, from the first time I was a tyke myself watching THE BAD SEED (1956) on TV—.
MA (interrupting): Your biography.
(LS whacks MA across the forehead with a ruler.)
LS: –ah, yes, I remember having a crush back then on little Patty McCormack, she looked so cute with her little Penmanship medal—up through classics like VILLAGE OF THE DAMNED (1960), THE EXORCIST (1973), and THE OMEN (1976) – evil kids were big in the 70s – to more recent fair like THE GOOD SON (1993), the only Macaulay Culkin film I ever liked. And then there’s my favorite of this genre, the classic Spanish film WHO CAN KILL A CHILD? (1976), about a whole island full of murderous kids! Yes, I’ve enjoyed the cinematic exploits of murderous children. So I was looking forward to ORPHAN.
MA: I could take or leave this little subgenre, though I’m also a big fan of THE BAD SEED, VILLAGE OF THE DAMNED, and of course, THE EXORCIST. So, I had no major expectations coming into ORPHAN.
LS: I have to admit, I thought it was pretty good. First off, the acting is above-average. I’ve always been a fan of Farmiga (you might remember her in Martin Scorcese’s THE DEPARTED and lots of other films), and Sarsgaard is an indie movie mainstay, who’s been in such great flicks as KINSEY. So right off the bat you have a married couple who’s slightly more interesting than is normal for these kinds of movies, just because of the people who are playing them. But the movie itself stands or falls on the shoulders of Isabelle Fuhrman as evil Esther, and she’s more than up for the job. Her performance is pretty terrific, and by the end she enters some very creepy territory.
The other kids are fine too, especially little Max, who Esther uses to her advantage (Max can read lips), and character actors like CCH Pounder as the nun who runs the orphanage, Sister Abigail, and Margo Martindale as Kate’s psychiatrist. All quite good.
As is usual for these films, Kate sees what is going on before anyone else, but because of her history of emotional troubles (between the grief over her dead child, her drinking, and marital woes), everyone is quick to dismiss her fears.
And what did you think, Little Mikey?
(MA sits at a table wearing a bib and eating cereal): Mikey likes it!
LS: MIKEY LIKES IT! HEY MIKEY! Er..the movie or the cereal?
MA: The movie. The cereal tastes like cardboard.
LS: That’s because it is cardboard, you dolt! You’re eating a prop.
MA: Really? Oh well. Gotta get your fiber somehow.
Anyway, I really liked ORPHAN. You know, you and I sat on a movie panel recently at NECON (a New England horror writers’ convention), and we were asked to name our favorite horror movies of the year, and I struggled to find a favorite. Had I seen ORPHAN before the panel, it would have been my pick. So, there you have it, I liked it so much, that it’s my favorite horror film of the year so far.
LS: Well, it’s no MARTYRS, but I enjoyed it quite a bit myself.
MA: You hit the nail on the head when you talked about the cast. That’s a huge reason why I liked this movie. The acting was excellent. I do remember Vera Farmiga in THE DEPARTED, and she’s terrific again in this movie. And Sarsgaard is a fine actor who doesn’t disappoint here. One of his credits you probably want to forget is his work in another movie we reviewed a few years back, THE SKELETON KEY, which I didn’t think was a bad movie, but I seem to recall you hated it. That’s going back a few years now.
LS: I think I have warmed a bit to SKELETON KEY over time. I still find Kate Hudson’s performance in that film incredibly boring – she’s just awful – and that hurts the film a lot, since she’s the lead. But I’ve always been a big fan of voodoo. And yes, Sarsgaard is good in that movie, too.
(CHILD in the back row raises her hand)
LS: Yes, little Mary!
CHILD (speaks in manly, Satanic voice): May I be excused. I really gotta go to the bathroom.
LS: But of course!
(CHILD walks past them, she looks up at Mikey)
CHILD: Your auntie eats slugs in hell.
(MA sticks his tongue out at her)
LS: Now, now, children. How about behaving?
(Hits MA across the forehead with a ruler again)
MA: Ouch! What did you do that for?
LS: Because I can. (laughs maniacally).
(LS laughs even louder)
MA: Anyway, back to the review. I really liked CCH Pounder as Sister Abigail, and Margo Martindale as Kate’s psychiatrist was sufficiently frustrating when she was supposed to be.
And as you said, the kids are terrific too. Little Aryana Engineer as Maxine nearly steals every scene she’s in, and Jimmy Bennett as Daniel is also very good. Bennett was also in the new STAR TREK movie, in a brief stint as little boy Captain Kirk.
LS: I thought Daniel was kind of annoying, but that’s the point. He seemed like a real kid. And he sure was fun for Esther to torment.
MA: Of course, the main player here is Isabelle Fuhrman as Esther, and she’s phenomenal. She makes Damien seem like a Brady Bunch kid. Not that I’d want to attend a birthday party with Damien…
LS: I would. In fact, I have a present right here in case he invites me (pulls out a wrapped package).
MA: .. but in the OMEN movies he kinda stood back and let all the devil’s “helpers” do the dirty work. Esther does her own dirty work.
(Behind them, a birthday party scene, with lots of kids and party hats and cake and ice cream. DAMIEN and his friends throw ice cream at MA & LS).
LS: Knock it off! I’m not afraid of you!
MA: Hey, LL, you might want to lighten up. It’s Damien, little Mr. 666 himself!
LS: Big deal. We’re in good with his cousin, don’t forget.
(HELLBOY pops up with a can of beer and a donkey piñata): Who’s up for a game of “Beat the Crap Out of the Donkey”? (Children cheer)
MA: It’s tempting to say that the kids, who are so good in this film, steal the movie, but it’s not true, because the adults in this flick are just as good.
While the acting is excellent, it’s not my favorite part of the movie. That would be the screenplay by David Johnson. He has written a script which could have very easily gone the way of cliché. Instead, he’s written an intelligent tale in which the people act the way they’re supposed to act. True, the script loses some of this intelligence towards the end, when the action takes over, and believability is strained somewhat, but by this point the film has earned its place as a smart thriller.
LS: Yes, it did lose its way a bit at the very end, and strained credibility. All I will say is that I found it odd how the characters all seemed immune to hypothermia.
MA: Good point! I really liked the relationship between the husband and wife, John and Kate. I thought it was realistic. I liked the way they handled their family, especially how they dealt with the “F-bombs.” This is important, because it makes their later arguments all the more painful to watch, and better yet, these disagreements unfold in a believable way.
LS: God, I hate wimpified terms like “f-bomb.” But you’re right. Their arguments didn’t feel forced. They seemed genuine.
MA: I also thought the Sister Abigail character was portrayed realistically. She was a character who could have very easily been written as a cliché. Instead, her reactions here are very real. Early on at the orphanage, she sees the parents interacting well with Esther, and she says as much. She doesn’t utter cliché dire warnings (“Nooo, not that child!) or act in a silly overly frightened manner. And later, her suspicions about Esther come off as real and authentic.
LS: We’re using words like “genuine” and “authentic” a lot, but I think what it amounts to is “good acting.”
MA: But it’s more than that, though. It’s the writing too, as these characters, admittedly brought to life on screen by some fine acting, appear in situations that seem real, as opposed to some of the forced situations we so often see in horror movies. I don’t want to give anything away, but in a disturbing scene near the end involving Esther and John, I loved John’s reaction to her. It’s great acting, yes, but it’s also very good writing, having the character of John react in a way that’s believable. I kept waiting for him to give in to her and then be attacked because his giving in would have made him a creep, which would have been out of character for him. But this doesn’t happen.
And this movie earns its R-rating. While it’s not filled with one violent scene after another, the few it includes are powerful and heavy hitting. I thought the murder scenes were intense.
LS: Well, it earned its R-rating, but only slightly. There’s no nudity (Farmiga even leaves her bra on during a sex scene), and the blood is minimal. I thought little Esther’s acts of violence were a bit subdued for my tastes.
MA: Well, yeah, for your tastes, ye who watches TOKYO GORE POLICE for fun. I didn’t find this movie subdued at all. I found it intense. I actually saw a couple of people sitting on the edge of their seats towards the end of the movie. Director Jaume Collet-Serra does a nice job building up the tension. I had a good time watching this movie. For those of you who like to be scared, this is a movie for you.
There are some truly great fright scenes. The road attack sequence when Esther attacks one of the characters with a hammer packs a real wallop (heh, heh). And I loved the scene when she pulls a razor blade on her brother while he’s in his bed. The line she utters to him— great stuff! You gotta see this movie!
Sure, it has its flaws. I thought it was way too easy the way they adopted Esther. It was like, “we’ll take her.” OK. All done. Granted, I think some time passes before they are allowed to bring Esther home, but it still seemed too easy. It takes more paperwork to adopt a dog from the pound these days than it did for these parents to adopt Esther!
LS: Yeah, that was a bit rushed. But we can forgive that because it was meant to move the movie along.
MA: And there were too many false scares for my liking, although most of these came early on in the movie. By the time the film really gets going, the scares are genuine.
LS: I found that irritating as well. But you’re right. That happens mostly in the early part of the film. I especially hate the way music is used to set us up for a scare that doesn’t happen. It’s a bit ham-fisted.
MA: I also liked the scene where we see Esther’s artwork on the walls of her room illuminated by the fish tank lighting. I thought this was a creepy scene.
LS: Yes, what was that? Ultraviolet paint?
MA: I’m not sure. But it reminded me of the paint used in some of the fun houses I went through as a kid.
I had little or no expectations regarding ORPHAN, and so I was more than pleasantly surprised. Right now, it’s my pick for best horror movie of the year. Go see ORPHAN!
LS: Looks like one of the rare times that we agree about a movie. What can I say, except this one’s worth checking out.
Okay, little Mikey, Show and Tell is over. It’s off to detention for you!
LS: You draw dirty pictures in my classroom, you get a detention! (MA grumbles). Don’t worry. I’ll say so long to the folks for you. (MA Exits). Can’t have pictures like this in a classroom, that’s for sure. (Opens a door to reveal a room with purple fluorescent lighting and all sorts of sordid pictures on the wall). But a secret room hidden in the wall – that’s a different story!
Until next time—.
(CUT to MA sitting in detention next to Damien, Linda Blair, the Bad Seed and some of the evil children from VILLAGE OF THE DAMNED).
MA: Anyone have any gum?
(First published on Fear Zone on 7/27/2009)
© Copyright 2009 by Michael Arruda and L.L. Soares