Saturday, February 20, 2010

CULT MOVIE REVIEW: Orphan (2009)

Friedrich Nietzsche once wrote "it is not a lack of love, but a lack of friendship that makes unhappy marriages."

However, in the case of the Jaume Collet-Serra's horror movie Orphan (2009), I'd amend that proverb to read that it is also the lack of trust that makes for unhappy unions.

Case in point: Kate (Vera Farmiga) and John Coleman (Peter Saarsgard).

They're an affluent American couple raising two children, young Danny (Jimmy Bennett) and little Max (Aryana Engineer), who is virtually deaf. Despite a recent personal tragedy (a third Coleman child, Jessica, is born dead...), the surface life of this couple appears normal.

Scratch that surface a little, however, and it bleeds.

Viewers can detect that these parents no longer trust another; that they are alienated from one another. Sure, the Colemans may love one another, but faith and belief is gone. John has confessed to a decade-old sexual infidelity (but his confession came only two years ago...) and Kate is a recovering alcoholic. In fact, her alcoholism was nearly responsible for the death of Max on an icy pond some time back.

As Orphan begins, Kate is on anti-depressants, in therapy, and resisting John's attempts to re-establish physical intimacy. She is depressed, but no longer wants to "be like this." As in the case of so many modern marriages, John and Kate soon seek hope and purpose outside their problem relationship and decide to adopt a third child: a nine year old orphan named Esther (Isabelle Fuhrman). In very short order, this manipulative, malevolent "child" successfully scratches the surface of the Coleman marriage and brings all the roiling, bleeding undercurrents to the surface.

But even before the evil-to-her-rotten-core Esther enters the picture, Orphan informs the audience that the Colemans are distant from one another emotionally. Commendably, the picture does so mostly in terms of production design and visuals. The Coleman family house is a study in blacks, grays and silvers. It is a cold, sterile, austere place. The iced-over pond just outside the homestead is a metaphor for Kate's emotionally-fragile condition: frozen over; frigid. And all around, the snow falls incessantly, burying any real hopes of an emotional thaw. In the movie's climax, Kate must navigate a blizzard to save her family and then crash through the walls of the house; a metaphor, perhaps, for the emotional impediments that the Colemans have put up, blocking their intimacy.

Esther, of course, is the proverbial bad seed, a bullying, psychotic who hides a terrible and incredible secret. But the fact remains: the Colemans would not have proved such easy pickings for this predator if the couple had just listened to one another; if they still fostered some sense of trust.

Part of the reason that Orphan works as well as it does is because the writer, David Leslie Johnson, proves skilled in observing how men and women relate to one another, particularly within the confines of marriage. Once John Coleman embraces little Esther as part of his family, he is loyal to her to a fault; to the point of dangerous denial. It's easier for him to blame Kate (and her recent history of alcoholism) than to face an unwelcome new truth.

As for Kate Coleman, she makes her case against Esther with such histrionics and emotionalism (and physical rages...) that it is easy to disregard her arguments about Esther as being the product of a jealous, overly-emotional, depressed mind. At one point, Kate tells John she's tired of "connecting the dots" for him, and that, in particular, has the ring of truth to it. John is pretty darn clueless, and ultimately he pays for that. And Kate is so impulsive that Esther can play her like a piano.

Orphan is filled with nicely-staged, small moments involving John and Kate. Early on, John attempts gently to initiate sex, and is put off, not in ugly or mean terms...just in routine, "not now," marital ones. Later, when the couple does have sex (in the kitchen), they momentarily bonk heads during the act of passion and giggle about it like embarrassed kids. It's awkward, but it's also real. We get the impression of a real couple; one in crisis, but also in love.

These small observances about John, Kate and their relationship are important, because so much of Orphan revolves around Esther's ability to totally play and thus derail the Colemans. She is a "Big," Dramatic Evil (expertly played by Furhman), but the solid, understated and human performances of Saarsgard and Farmiga are what prevent Orphan from lapsing into overwrought, hysterical camp.

runs for over two hours and it maintains a sense of reality and paranoia for a good duration of its running time, even despite Esther's almost cartoonish look (which includes a Little Bo Peep outfit) as well as some over-the-top violence (much of it involving a hammer...). One scene on a playground employs point-of-view camera-work successfully enough that you nearly forget the whole scene is ridiculous; that the "imperiled" character is not alone there (parents and children are all around...); and that the Esther cannot bend the rules of time and space to get ahead of her prey and pop-up just in time to push her off a slide. It's Babes in Scareland, and it's sort of silly.

Over the years, there have been many films about "evil" children, and most reviews of Orphan have dutifully noted that cinematic history. Rhoda Penmark in The Bad Seed (1956) was a sociopath so dangerous that Mother Nature had to take her out. Damien was The Anti-Christ in The Omen (1976). Macauley Culkin was The Good Son (1993), and that mostly-forgotten film featured some of the same wintry settings and inter-family emotional alienation that dominate Orphan.
But here's the thing: all the "evil" children commentary is kind of off-point and off-the-mark given the audacious twist that Orphan unveils with such devilish delight in the third act. Esther doesn't really and truly fit the bill of Evil Child. Half of the description "Evil Child" is a red herring. Thus, this movie is of a piece with another, different sub genre. It's really an example of the Interloper Horror Film that was so popular in the 1990s.

In this sub genre, a secretive stranger comes into a family unit and shatters boundaries, sows mistrust, and spreads chaos. That stranger could be a nanny (The Guardian [1990], The Hand That Rocks The Cradle [1992]), a tenant in the apartment downstairs (Pacific Heights [1990], a new roommate (Single White Female [1992], or even a new pet dog who isn't what he seems (Man's Best Friend [1993]). But the crux of all these films is that the Interloper pushes, shoves, and inveigles his/her way into an existing family/interpersonal unit, and then subverts it. That's Esther's agenda in Orphan too. She's a classic Interloper.

And Esther's evil agenda could not -- would not -- work, if all was well in the Coleman house. So Orphan isn't truly about's about a marriage (and a family) on the precipice, and Esther is the Interloper who kicks it off the cliff. If Saarsgard and Farmiga weren't so authentic in their roles here, so committed to their performances Orphan wouldn't really work as well as it does

An Evil Kid is one thing. But a marriage without trust is really scary.


  1. Winter and killer kids seem to go hand in hand cinematically; alongside the ones you mention I would add The Children, an excellent and tense British film (and features a really horrible sled death, enough to give Ethan Fromme nighmares); the Omen II, which has the creepiest death scene of the series IMHO, on a frozen lake; the also excellent "Ransom of Red Chief meets The Omen" thriller Whisper; and I seem to remember that The Devil Times Five also took place in the winter but it's been decades since I saw that one. What makes winter and killer kids so congruent? Is it some sort of traumatic repressed cultural memory triggered by snow suits?

  2. Hey DLR:

    You raise a good point there. Winter and Evil Children do seem a potent combination.

    Maybe because winter is a kind of period of "death" (before resurrection and rebirth of Spring) and children are our hope for the future/tomorrow. So if you combine em, you're kind of killing the future.

    Now I have to see that British film you were talking about: The Children.


  3. I Love those early nineties interloper films. (I always think of them as "usurper" films thanks to a Marge line in a Simpsons episode). They're so fascinating, the best ones almost always seem to be focused on the relationships of woman. There's almost an "All about Eve" aspect to them that makes them borderline (or reusable as) camp. It's interesting also that they were popular right after the slasher boom and that there never seemed to be any popular female slashers. I think in a way, "the interloper" IS the female version of the slasher.

    You're so right that the Orphan presents itself as a killer kid movie (and is one for most of it's running time) and then transforms and shows it's true nature. The major battle seems to be between Kate and Esther with Esther using Kate's past to make her look irresponsible so she can take over the household and John. I wonder if Esther's antiquated wardrobe is meant to signal that she's baiting John with a more subservient husband and wife relationship? (That she is willing to shelve her own identity and play the part of a "little girl" for her husband, something Kate refuses to do.)

    As usual, very interesting post and thanks to DLR for bringing up the killer kids and winter connection, I'll be thinking about that for the rest of the day.--Unk

  4. Unk --

    I love your wardrobe theory in regards to Esther; offering a signal that she's "baiting John with a more subservient husband and wife relationship."

    I think that's a dead-on reading; and frankly, I kept asking myself what the hell was with Esther's old fashioned clothes. Well, you answered that in your comment here. Your idea tracks (and adds to my appreciation for the film's visuals...).

    I'm a fan of those Usurper/Interloper movies too. Another one: Mother's Boys with Jamie Lee Curtis in the role of female slasher/boogeyman.

    Have you noticed in those films, there's always a breach of -- shall I say -- sexual etiquette? In Orphan, Esther makes a pass at John (and we think she's nine). In Mother's Boys, Curtis's character takes a bath in front of her own little boy, etc. I'm sure there's some theory out there as to why the Female Usurpers always use emotional invasion (as opposed to just stabbing people with a big knife...).

    Thanks for the comment,


  5. Yes, you're right! How strange is it that the female boogyman is always presented as having severe boundary issues? What about Peyton in Hand that rocks the cradle? She kills people and attempts to seduce the husband but the real jaw dropping scene involves her nursing another woman's baby! The fact that Hedy in SWF sleeps with her roommate's boyfriend is more representative of her villainous nature than the fact that she also KILLS him.

    I think it may be more thrilling (for both men and woman) to watch these female boogeymen (maybe I should say boogeypeople) break established codes of behavior rather than just kill. In The Orphan, it seems really significant that Esther is able to kill a bird (put it out of it's misery) without being squeamish and the son is not. That's a point when we're really supposed to think that something is wrong with her because she's not acting like a "proper" girl.

  6. Unk,

    Oh my goodness, yes -- the baby nursing scene in Hand that Rocked the Cradle: now that's an invasion of personal space/boundaries if ever there was one!

    And Jennifer Jason Leigh's *ahem* bj peformed on Steven Weber in SWF -- during which she capped him off, so-to-speak, only AFTER revealing her identity to him -- is another perfect example of female boogeyperson boundary-crossing behavior.

    And in The Temp, we spy on Lara Flynn Boyle masturbating, and it's then implied she sort of gave her last employer a heart attack through overly-active sex. TO ADVANCE IN THE COMPANY! :)

    So there must be something to this. We apparently want our Female Interlopers/Usurpers to break sexual/sex-role taboos more than we want to see them kill. (Though they do plenty of killing too...).

    I'm trying to think back to examples of male Interloper sexual-barrier-breaking in these films (De Niro in The Fan, Keaton in Pacific Heights), and my memory is that they do some pretty bad, anti-social things (murder, kidnapping, property damage), but they don't breach sexual etiquette. I may be wrong...

    I think Kevin Bacon kind of wanted to breach sexual etiquette with married Meryl Streep in The River Wild (1994), but the movie never went beyond a suggestion of that...


  7. Another aspect that is fairly exclusive to these types of films is that the Boogeylady aims to destroy her victim's reputation as well. It's not enough for her to take over the nest, she has to ruin your name too! Think Ester painting Kate as a drunk or Peyton from HTRTC framing the mentally challenged handyman. That really shows how these films pick at social fears too.

  8. John --

    Maybe the ultimate "interloper" movie (from the 1960s, no less, so before the cycle you talk about) is TEOREMA (dir. Pier Paolo Pasolini). The usurper in question is a mysterious stranger played by Terrence Stamp, at the height of his international cachet--this is also the same year or so in which he did TOBY DAMMIT for Fellini.

    The reason I mention it is that in that film, Stamp's character definitely does do some sexual home-wrecking (if memory serves, with every member of a 4 person family, mom/dad and daughter/son). Could be that it is the exception to the rule.

  9. Unk:

    Yes -- the reputation has to be sullied. In The Crush, Alicia Silverstone stages it so that it looks like Cary Elwes has raped her (an underage girl); she even steals a used condom from his trash and well, you know the rest...

    I wonder too, if in these movies, the idea is that the protagonist participates in the downfall; that the barriers are lowered first by the "normal" hero, and then by the sexual boogeyperson. In SWF, Bridget Fonda sort of invited Jennifer Jason Leigh in, wearing her earrings and stuff, without permission. Like a door being opened. In The Crush, Elwes ogles Silverstone and kisses her...encouraging the crossing of barriers. These are classic cases of give an inch, take a mile.

    Kevin -- I must admit, I've never seen that film, and now I really, really need to. Thanks for bringing it up.


  10. I didn't see this movie when it was out, but your review, and the discourse in the comments about the INTERLOPER variety of film makes me very curious now. THE GUARDIAN is one of my guilty pleasures, too. Thanks, John.

  11. Holy cow, that film's cover is creepy!