Evil Has a New Home: Orphan (2009)
2009’s Orphan opens with a sequence involving Kate (Vera Farmiga, who carries the film) and John (Peter Sarsgaard) visiting the hospital to deliver their third child in addition to daughter Max and son Daniel. John and Kate separate as she is wheeled down the hall, her labor pains clearly becoming something else.
While Jaume Collet-Serra’s direction stays close on Kate while it dawns on her that something is wrong, as the realization sets in, Jeff Cutter’s camerawork brings us to a birds-eye view, showing that Kate’s wheelchair is streaking blood down the hall.
As the sequence progresses to a maternity ER situation, Kate’s distressed and medicated point-of-view substitutes one of the doctors for John wearing a surgical mask, just as John himself appears behind, cheering her on with a camcorder. John’s cheers become perverse and macabre as Kate is first told that her unborn is dead, and then is subjected to what appears to be a forced abortion, but then is told everything is fine.
Then we’re treated to a close-up shot of a very dead, mutilated fetus, presented to Kate as her new daughter, just as Kate startles awake.
And that’s just the first scene, setting the expectations for the rest of the film: Kate and John’s relationship is strained following a miscarriage with unfortunate side effects; each blames the other for how the pregnancy left them without a third child they both wanted desperately. John was unfaithful (the betrayal the ER scene alludes to, in its way) and Kate is a recovering alcoholic (her fuzzy POV and slurred speech both could be either medication or alcohol).
Kate’s fears about John simply watching on optimistically as their family plans fall apart also carries into the film proper once they decide to adopt to round out their family unit. Together they make an appointment to meet with an orphanage. While there, they encounter Esther, a 9-year old from Russia with impeccable manners, a talent for art, and what most adults would call “an old soul.”
Kate and John invite Esther into their home, and the tension begins to mount almost immediately. Strange “coincidences” from John’s point of view only add to the pile of evidence that Kate compiles to demonstrate how something is off about their newly adopted daughter. Esther speaks perfect English, and knows far more than a 9-year old should about sex, for instance; she can play flawless Tchaikovsky on piano; she can understand sign language.
And then people just start getting hurt around her. First a girl “slips” on a slide at a playground while her mother flirts shamelessly with John. Then she puts her own arm into a vice to produce the kind of spiral fracture a forceful parent might, following a confrontation with Kate.
What truly drives a wedge between John and Kate, however, is when their son Daniel’s tree house burns to ash while Esther looks on from the ground. Daniel, trying to escape the flames (which we see Esther start), breaks several bones and severely injures his neck. Kate loses her patience for John’s lack of trust in her misgivings and finds herself drugged for an outburst in which she attacks Esther openly.
Which is all part of Esther’s true plan. You see, Esther is not 9 years old. In fact, she’s over 30, severely mentally ill in a dangerous way, and fixated on inserting herself into families to take the husbands for her own. This truly fucked up plot twist is delivered to Kate via exposition just before it’s laid bare for John, home alone with their other daughter Max, and very drunk on an entire bottle of wine by himself (smart move, John).
Seeing her opening, Esther slaps on a heap of makeup, cuts apart a dress until it’s miniskirt length, and starts in with the “I wanted to look pretty for you, Daddy” and I need a shower just from remembering this scene. This plot twist is the kind you almost have to laugh at not for it being funny, but just for the straight audacity it takes to commit to it. It transforms a kind of by-the-numbers Bad Seed/Good Son riff into something trashier, more lurid.
And that is what makes Orphan a worthwhile watch: not only did Jaume Collet-Serra make an effective and disturbing “evil child” movie, he made one with its own individual, trashy novelty, and made sure it was shot and presented in a “classy drama” manner.