I just spent the last 20 minutes scouring YouTube for Isabelle Fuhrman interviews. I’m trying to get it in my head that Fuhrman has her own identity – one that is not Esther, the demented adoptee who has been messing with my ability to fall asleep for the last few nights. I’ve never been one to get scared at movies. Sure, I’ll jump when the killer pops out of the closet, but no movie has ever gotten into my head and affected me past the closing credits. But there’s a first time for everything — Jaume Collet-Serra’s films Orphan completely scared the shit out of me.
Connecticut couple John and Kate Coleman (Peter Sarsgaard and Vera Farmiga) decide to adopt as part of the healing process after the stillbirth of their third child. At the orphanage the Colemans immediately find themselves smitten with what appears to be the Russian Laura Ingalls Wilder – 9-year-old Esther, who is bright, mature, sweet, well-mannered… and homicidal, but they didn’t know that yet! While surly preteen Danny (Jimmy Bennett) resents Esther and all the attention she gets, 6-year-old Max (Aryana Engineer) cottons to her new big sister right away and everything seems perfect. But then a school bully is pushed off a jungle gym and breaks her ankle. Esther adamantly maintains her innocence and Max backs her up, but Kate isn’t so sure. As she investigates Esther’s background, more and more accidents occur. Esther’s angelic façade has John and the family therapist snowed enough to think Kate, a recovering alcoholic, is beginning to unravel, while Danny and Max, who know what Esther can do with a claw hammer, have been scared silent. Kate’s in this alone and it’s up to her to stop Esther before the Colemans become the next adoptive family to perish in a freak house fire.
Though the violence against children puts Orphan on an elevated level of twisted. The movie has all the trappings of a typical thriller: spooky cinematography, false alarms, a soap opera-worthy twist (the trailer is right; you definitely will not guess Esther’s secret), the mom racing against time to save her family, a bloody climax during a power outage. Add in the movie’s far-fetched premise — is it customary for a couple to just stroll into an orphanage and leave with a child, like they’re adopting a puppy? — and Orphan had all the potential in the world to be ridiculously cheesy. And it very well may have been, with less talented actors.
Farmiga and Engineer, who is deaf both in the movie and real life, stand out with their respective hysteria and silent terror, but Furhman is the obvious star with the power to make or break Orphan as a horror movie experience. Though 12-years-old with only one prior movie role under her belt, she has a maturity and range that go above and beyond the standard child actor precociousness. Depending on the situation, Esther can be a curtsying little lady or a creepy demon child. Furhman does such an incredible job switching her personae that she transcends the fiction and actually seems real. When Esther pushes Max in front of the moving car, the intensely evil expression on her face is so powerful and seemingly authentic that you can’t help but gasp in wide-eyed horror, even though you’ve seen that scene twenty times in the commercial.
Though entirely unrealistic (the nun at orphanage initially extols Esther’s virtues to John and Kate, but later shows up at their house to tell them how she forgot to mention that oh yeah, Esther is usually nearby whenever something terrible goes down), Furhman’s acting makes Orphan so eerie and disturbing that even the most skeptical scary movie-watcher will be in for a restless night’s sleep.
Esther may go on to become a horror movie icon, but Fuhrman will definitely have a bright future in show business. Should any casting director ever pass on her, all she has to do is shoot him The Stare and he’ll say, “I was just kidding, Isabelle, you totally got the part. Please stop looking at me like that.”
Starring: Isabelle Fuhrman, Vera Farmiga, Peter Sarsgaard, Jimmy Bennett, Aryana Engineer, CCH Pounder
Director: Jaume Collet-Serra
Runtime: 123 minutes
Distributor: Warner Bros.