Orphan: The Review

8 August 2009 at 12:45 (Uncategorized) (, , )

Apologies for the recent lack of posts. My hubby and I vacated rural Texas for a brief visit to our old stomping grounds in Oregon. Posts will resume their normal frequency!

Because I not only took a vacation from home but also from my regular movie-viewing regimen, I’m a bit at a loss for discussion material. For this reason, I revisit Orphan, which I discussed in a previous post before its release.

Before I proceed, I have a disclaimer: I SPOIL THE MOVIE IN THIS REVIEW! I disclose a big twist, so please see the movie before you read the review if you want to be surprised. To my shock, I did not predict this turn, which is one of the reasons I would recommend this movie to fans of the genre. I would also suggest seeing Orphan because of its solid acting and directing. It manages to entertain not in spite of but because of its silliness, and I think many fans will appreciate that it takes quality seriously, the plot cheekily goes into uncharted territory.

The film stars Vera Farmiga as Kate Coleman, mother of two and wife to John (played by the attractive Peter Sarsgaard). After experiencing a traumatic stillbirth, Kate and John decide to adopt a third child. This desire takes them to an all-girls’ orphanage where they meet Esther (portrayed by Isabelle Fuhrman), a young girl from Russia with a tragic past and a talent for art. Immediately charmed, Kate and John choose Esther and initially, she fits in with the family. Gradually, troubling incidents occur that involve Esther. A snotty schoolmate, for example, falls from a playground slide and accuses Esther of pushing her. Kate becomes suspicious while her husband and therapist remain skeptical. Meanwhile, the violence escalates, and while the audience learns that Esther perpetrates it, the cast of characters continue to blame Kate, pointing to previous instances of negligence as a result of her alcoholism. Eventually, Kate gets committed, and with Mom out of the way, Esther attempts to seduce John.

John and Esther in Orphan.  Image taken from about.com.

John and Esther in Orphan. Image taken from about.com.

At this point of the film, I am giddy. Everything seems to be playing out along the lines of the Electra complex, with Esther even altering one of Kate’s dresses for her purposes. How taboo! Then, the movie takes an even stranger turn: Kate learns that Esther is, in fact, an adult with pituitary problems and a history of psychotic mental illness. The wake of her journey from Eastern Europe to the United States is littered with the corpses of other would-be-lover-dads and the ashes of their literal and figurative homes. It’s one of those twists clever enough that you don’t see it coming and brash enough that it seems obvious in hindsight. Some will consider it too ridiculous to buy, but I found something so hilariously original about it that I didn’t feel cheated.

Still, Orphan no doubt proves problematic in a variety of ways. The character Esther draws upon some of the worst stereotypes about Eastern Europe, adopted children, and precocious girls. Most regressively, the film’s victimized family exemplifies white, middle-class privilege in spite of its dysfunction. Robin Wood‘s thesis about the politics of the American horror film apply perfectly to Orphan. Utilizing Freudian and Marxist theories, Wood suggests that the monster figure in horror films represents those figures American society oppresses: queers, women, the working class, and minorities. Hence, the progressive horror film elicits sympathy for the monster or uses the monster to critique the status quo. By contrast, a reactionary horror film, according to Wood, portrays the monster as entirely unsympathetic (i.e., non-human, evil). Esther is such a monster, and her desire for a sexual relationship conforms to Wood’s observation that the most regressive horror movies often utilize sexuality in their portrayals of monstrosity. (Read Wood’s essay here–it’s a good one)

Esthers shattered psyche at the climax of Orphan.

Esther's shattered psyche at the climax of Orphan. Image taken from screencrave.com.

Orphan does repress Esther since Kate successfully kills her. It also quickly alleviates any discomfort with childhood sexuality through its plot twist. The audience can leave the theater feeling safe that some order has been restored. Of course, I still enjoyed the movie and felt it struck a nice balance between camp and seriousness. It comes nowhere close to the much stronger, more ideologically complex Drag Me to Hell from earlier this summer, but it’s definitely worth your time and ticket dollars if you’re a fan of the genre.

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1 Comment

  1. See Splice Now! « Dark Room said,

    […] I expect that such an outcome would please the late Robin Wood despite Dren’s queerness (see my review of Orphan for more about […]

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