A middle-aged couple, thinking of adoption, wander around an orphanage, where they’ve been given a chance to meet the kids. They stumble upon one girl, Esther, a precocious preteen who’s in a room by herself, painting.
The couple, impressed by the child’s talent and sensitivity, ask why she isn’t at the party with the other kids. “I guess I’m different,” replies Esther, to which the couple give that stock reply of all caring adults: “That’s all right, honey, it’s OK to be different.”
“Orphan” (Japan title: “Esther”) is a film dedicated to disproving that notion; it’s the “Dirty Harry” of horror films, suggesting that liberal tolerance and understanding, while all well and good, can sometimes be a fatal character flaw. “Different” is great — until it plunges a steak knife into your side.
Horror films have taught us to fear and loathe school janitors, spurned adulteresses, malevolent toys, inbred hillbillies, and power-tool owners, but “Orphan” belongs to that special category of films inducing a fear of children. Kids are so often unguarded and direct, their emotions unmediated by adult suppression, that a child with a blank, unreadable face becomes downright sinister. It’s a tactic that has been used in films as diverse as “The Omen” and “The Shining” (with its Diane Arbus-esque twins), but “Orphan” takes that stratagem, loads both barrels with it, and blasts away.
Directed by Jaume Collet-Serra, yet another alumnus of the MTV and Bud ad school of filmmaking, got 75 percent of his film right just by casting Isabelle Fuhrman as his lead: This child actress has the range to play one scene incredibly sweet and shyly charming, and then to let a shadow pass across her face and emerge with a look as cold as death, and to make this seem as natural as day into night.
Fuhrman plays Esther, the sweet Russian orphan adopted by Kate and John Coleman (Vera Farmiga and Peter Sarsgaard), who have no idea what they’re getting into. Kate is grieving for a miscarried child, just off the bottle, and going through therapy; despite some misgivings — and ominous premonitions — she thinks adopting a child will bring some kind of closure, and her therapist agrees. (And therapy doesn’t get an easy ride from this film either.)
Kate’s young daughter, Max (8-year-old Aryana Engineer, in her debut), a deaf-mute, soon warms to Esther, who quickly learns how to use sign language with her new sister. The Coleman’s son, Daniel (Jimmy Bennett), is less enamored of Esther, who he views as a “spaz.” As Esther is bullied at school, scorned by her brother, and scolded by Kate, a disturbingly vindictive side of the girl begins to emerge.
Kate begins to worry, but John thinks she’s over-reacting. The strains within their marriage — a lack of intimacy, Kate’s fragile emotional state and her history of alcoholism, John’s roving eye — all come to the forefront; indeed, Esther seems to be actively sticking the knife into her adoptive parents’ emotional wounds.
Collet-Sera gets solid, psychologically nuanced performances from his cast — Sarsgaard is always reliable, and Farmiga plunges into near-breakdown fearlessly — and this helps to ground the film as it moves into more over-the-top territory. “Don’t Look Now” this is not, however: psychodrama is part of the deal, but the director sees his primary duty as jolting you out of your seat every eight minutes or so. Collet-Sera knows well how to use those old tricks, like the sudden LOUD sound out of nowhere, or the character who pops into the frame out of nowhere, and he employs them as regularly as rain in June.
This is effective in a funhouse-spook kind of way, but it does get a bit predictable, and it’s nowhere near as deliriously creepy as the constant crank of tension in fellow Spaniard J.A. Bayona’s “The Orphanage.” But if a bit of Halloween fright is what you’re looking for this month, “Orphan” certainly delivers. Just do not, repeat not, take the kids. Not unless you enjoy sleeping behind locked doors.