Little Esther has been a bad girl. A very bad girl. For most of her nine years, in fact — although as the new horror movie [movie id="375202"]“Orphan”[/movie] opens, all we know of her earlier life is that she was left homeless when her previous adoptive family died in a fire. How fortunate that she managed to escape. Now she’s available to be re-adopted by another family, and here come the well-to-do Colemans to scoop her up. Naturally they haven’t thought to hide the matches or anything, but they’ll learn, soon enough.
“Orphan” is an evil-kid movie with a fresh, inventive twist at the end. This twist doesn’t stand up under retrospective contemplation, but how many do? And the picture is so strongly cast and beautifully shot that when the ending arrives, it’s so crafty that we accept it out of simple consumer gratitude.
We join the Colemans — architect John ([movieperson id="203350"]Peter Sarsgaard[/movieperson]) and his pregnant wife Kate ([movieperson id="207274"]Vera Farmiga[/movieperson]) — as they arrive at a hospital, where Kate is ready to give birth. Then, in a harrowing and bloody half-dream sequence, we see that the baby is born dead. The couple is bereft. They already have two children, but now decide to adopt a third to join their six-year-old deaf-mute daughter Max (Aryana Engineer, who actually is hearing-impaired) and her 12-year-old brother Daniel (Jimmy Bennett). At a Catholic orphanage they encounter 11-year-old Esther (Isabelle Fuhrman), a raven-haired, dark-eyed Russian girl, who loves to paint and sing, to dress in immaculate little frocks, and even to wear ribbons in her hair — a perfect little angel. With the blessings of Sister Abigail (CCH Pounder), the head nun at the orphanage, the Colemans decide to adopt Esther, which makes her oh so happy. “Nobody’s ever talked to me before,” she says sweetly. “I guess I’m different.”
Director Jaume Collet-Serra (“House of Wax”) is admirably intent on not rushing into the horrors to come. The first thing we learn after the Colemans bring Esther home is how shaky their marriage is. John had an affair some years back, which may have been what drove Kate to drink — she’s an alcoholic, now on the wagon, who almost caused Max’s death when she passed out while the girl was playing by a pond. Esther, who’s eerily devious, quickly perceives John’s ambivalence about his wife, and determines to exploit it. She begins by appearing in the couple’s bedroom one night and announcing, “I want to sleep next to daddy.”
Esther’s strangeness comes into focus slowly — a crushed bird here, a crippled schoolmate there. When she breaks into the safe where John keeps a pistol, we also learn she has a very un-childlike expertise with weapons. She neutralizes her new siblings through cold-blooded intimidation (a threat of castration definitely gets Daniel’s attention); then she turns her attention to Kate, intent on driving her crazy. (Farmiga has been through this before, in the 2007 demon-child dud “Joshua.”) The only ray of hope in this procession toward disaster comes from Sister Abigail, who sounds an alarm — she’s discovered that Esther may not be the little princess everyone thought. But Esther is eavesdropping when this information is conveyed, and by the time the nun’s car comes speeding onto the Colemans’ extensive property, she’s waiting by the side of the road, with a hammer.
The picture was shot in Canada, and has an appropriate wintry chill. Snow blows and drifts outside the Colemans’ home, and its austere interiors — all slate grays and dark gleaming wood, with brushed-metal lamps providing puddles of light — are elegantly captured in Jeff Cutter’s brooding cinematography. Sarsgaard and Farmiga give a fully-rounded account of the Colemans’ troubled union — which in a lesser fright flick might be only a plot sidelight — and Fuhrman proves to be a remarkable young actress. Her pale, freckled face can shift from winsome innocence to malignant hostility as if a switch had been thrown in her character’s soul. (She also has a scene with Sarsgaard that’s spectacularly creepy — it couldn’t have been easy to do, for either of them.) Unusually for a child performer, this unsettling girl holds our attention for two full hours. We’re happy she’s not holding anything else.
Don’t miss Kurt Loder’s review of “The Ugly Truth,” also new in theaters this week.