Sunday, July 26, 2009

Mommy Issues


by James Hansen

If the brood of deformed evil children in David Cronenberg’s The Brood were just a little older and had slightly more complex, if equally deranged, minds, they would have been a lot like Esther (Isabelle Fuhrman) - the new spawn child showcasing her love of hammers, pianos, and arson (oh my) in the horror thriller Orphan. Despite its exceedingly familiar formula of evil kids behaving badly in (where else?) tree houses and playgrounds, Orphan ups the nasty on its way to being exceedingly entertaining and a downright riot.

An inverted Freudian slasher movie of sorts, Orphan works precisely because its twist is the pitch of the movie and the clear conceptual punch behind the otherwise overlong screenplay. There is something wrong with Esther, and the something, executed randomly (read: perfectly) in a spectacular gold mine of a sequence, like the big reveal in the classic B-horror film Sleepaway Camp, highlights why the film was working in the first place.


Freud aside for now, none of this works if the execution of the pitch is off, so major credit has to be given to director Jaume Collet-Serra (House of Wax) who sets the tone from the get go with a bizarrely violent opening sequence that underscores the unrest that lurks through the entirety of Orphan. No matter the wild direction of the story or the complete implausibility of the decision making, especially on the part of the dumb male (Name of the) Father (Peter Sarsgaard), Orphan keeps its serious tone, as do the actors.

Vera Farmiga, as the Mother, filling an inverted psychoanalytic position as proposed castrator of Esther, is all-in here, still managing to evoke sympathy amidst her insane plight. Whether she is sprinting through hospital wings, meeting with an intractable psychiatrist, or confronting her out of control foster spawn, Farmiga remains deeply focused and intensely dedicated. Isabelle Fuhrman gives a solid performance as Esther which is deepened by her hilarious costume design and some precise editing in certain sequences. Girl has more material to play with than Tim Gunn.


Most of this material for Esther comes from the clever Freudian inversion that, surprisingly, hasn’t been toyed with that much in horror. Freud never really knew what to make of girls, as the lack of a phallus makes his theory predicated on the existence of a phallus completely inapplicable. He admitted that there is likely something similar, but never knew exactly what the process would be. Well, low and behold, Orphan screenwriters David Johnson and Alex Mace have figured it out! Or, more likely, flipped it directly on its head, sense making or not. Esther is in direct competition with her mother, as her (blood) lust is directed to the person she most wants to bone err...lay - her father. By simply toying with this classic horror approach, Orphan derives a little extra juice, builds a lot more spunk, and flashes a load of balls.

8 comments:

Chuck Williamson said...

For the record, I found some of the ejaculatory imagery that concluded this review more than a little frightening -- possibly more-so than Esther herself!

Nice review, James. Orphan is, indeed, a loopy, delirious, and downright hilarious horror film that doubles as an amusing variation of the urban legend about the family that adopts the Mexican Hairless only the find out it's a sewer rat (you know the one).

Freud, on the other hand, would probably shake his head in confusion after reading this review.

James Hansen said...

Haha. Gotcha! I saved my best surprise for last. I lack for nothing. (Oooohh...)

Freud would likely be confused, yes, but I hope you see what I'm saying at least. Takes the male specific basis and just puts it onto girls, right? Not that we need to psychoanalytically nerd out too much here, but I think I'm at least on base with that argument. No?

James Hansen said...

(That said, the review is too short to really get into things too much, but I was having trouble writing about how the twist is the concept without, you know, just spoiling the whole movie. I tried my best not to, at least for now.)

Chuck Williamson said...

Oh, don't worry. I see it, James. I just doubt Freud would. It's like the old joke about Freud losing his shit after reading Kristeva (true story: I have a similar reaction to reading Kristeva).

And -- dear lord! -- that plot twist! One of the most gleefully perverse and tasteless things I've ever seen in a mainstream film.

Jacob Shoaf said...

Christ...fine! I'll go see this Wednesday instead of PUBLIC ENEMIES!

James, you had me at "hammers, pianos, and arson."

James Hansen said...

Jacob- There is no way you won't get a huge kick out of this movie. Right up your alley...in a WHEN THE SCREAMING STOPS kind of way...

Jacob Shoaf said...

Like WHEN THE SCREAMING STOPS? I thought you said I'd like it...

It had better be shown in Orphan-vision or something.

FilmDr said...

Nice review. I also liked the way Orphan lampoons the parents' efforts to do the right, politically correct, responsible thing. When you have a psycho manipulative kid, such efforts become ludicrously inadequate.