Orphan belongs to that long established horror subgenre, the creepy kid. You know the one where a seemingly normal child starts to exhibit devilish behavior. Except Orphan, as worn and tired as it seems in concept and premise, has more than a few tricks up its sleeve to engross the viewer, especially a third act revelation that you either believe or you don't, but which certainly attempts at providing perhaps the most credible, if somewhat ludicrous, explanation such a film could ever provide.
The Orphan of the title is Esther (Isabelle Fuhrman) who is adopted by kindly urbanites Kate and John Coleman (Vera Farmiga and Peter Sarsgaard respectively) and brought in to live with their small family – already consisting of their son and mute daughter. The mute daughter, Max, of course is a carefully placed and planned plot device, a character who in time becomes both the unwilling accomplice in Esther's vengeful, destructive ways and the audience's perspective on the turmoil that unfolds. It's not revealing much by saying that Esther is not at all what she seems and her foster parents quickly learn, this is one purchase you can't return. Her mannerisms at first are charmingly quaint, almost lady like (she dresses in long frocks, ponytails her hair etc) but they truly manifest in sinister ways once she becomes comfortable at home. We learn that she is originally from Russia and the film builds on this – in one key scene she suddenly starts to speak with a noticeable, eerie Russian accent. It's the pursuit of the revelation of her unknown past that really drives the film this well, and no, she isn't a kid vampire.
The film builds its suspense through the controlled and nuanced use of editing and camera trickery to turn ordinary situations frightening – like a scene where Esther tampers with the breaks in Kate's car while little Max is still inside. But none of this would work if the performances were not believable and Farmiga especially does wonders in a role that essentially expects her to be paranoid, alert and hysterical. By now presumably an experienced hand in situations such as these (she starred in the almost identical and similarly themed Joshua, from a couple of years ago) she is able to easily elevate this familiar setup, by being a credible former alcoholic on the mend (and this point plays into the plot as well). Others do not fare so well however and Sarsgaard's understanding husband is dopey, one-dimensional and seemingly blind to the chaos that surrounds him, for he continues to side with Esther while his entire family crumbles around him.
The film seems to have a lot of fun by giving Esther the upper hand. She is able to use both her parents damaged backgrounds (John suffers pangs of guilt for his acts of infidelity years ago) against each other, but not without making it also a bit too easy for her to get away with. Even while watching the film, when you are still not sure how it will end (and despite the somewhat plausible, fresh revelation when that end occurs), it seems unlikely how easily everything falls into place for Esther; it's just too damn convenient. Credit though must be given to child actress Isabelle Fuhrman who as Esther makes the character brutal, amoral, apathetic and yet also very methodical and believable. Orphan is undoubtedly an incredulous horror thriller, but one which has the ability to be effective for its running duration because it plays with its themes carefully and even such well tread concepts such as the fear of parenting, sibling rivalry and an unorthodox move, suggestive pedophilia, are giving a fresh spin.
Rating: 3.5/5 - Faizan Rashid