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.