The American horror movie, so vital in the 1970s, is still enjoying its recent and long-running resurgence in popularity, although the market is glutted with skillful but unambitious exercises in nihilism (The Strangers, the Final Destination series) and dull rehashes of existing horror properties (examples are too numerous to mention, but the recent My Bloody Valentine and Friday the 13th reboots are basically what I’m talking about). So with the whole genre keeping a safe distance from anything like risk or relevance, it’s a relief to see a movie like Orphan, which is on fucking point from its very first scene. If you’ve seen the trailers and TV spots, you know that Orphan is ostensibly the story of a very bad little girl. But this film is really about Kate Coleman (Vera Farmiga), a very sad Connecticut Mom who was profoundly traumatized by the stillbirth of her third child, and it opens with a harrowing nightmare sequence that begins with Kate going into labor, making her way to the hospital, etc. Events on screen quickly turn gruesome. It’s an effective horror-movie gambit. If the film is this unhinged from the first reel, the audience wonders where else the director might be willing to go before it’s over.

That pall having been cast over the proceedings, director Jaume Collet-Serra takes his sweet time unspooling a screenplay by debut scriptwriter David Johnson. The result is a rare thing in contemporary Hollywood genre film — a story in which the characters have room to move and breathe. I’m not generally a fan of movies that treat woman characters as little more than a bundle of Mommy anxieties, but Farmiga really sells Kate’s intelligence and quirkiness while expressing a sadness bordering on depression. Collet-Serra has tons of time just to watch her interacting with her husband John (Peter Sarsgaard) and her kids, Daniel (Jimmy Bennett) and the tiny Max (Aryana Engineer). Over time, the details that inform Kate’s psychological state are filled in. Not only did she lose a third child in her belly, but little Max lost her hearing in some kind of water accident that resulted from her mother’s inattention. She’s an alcoholic who’s kicked for the sake of her family, but who also spends an awful lot of time staring down bottles of red wine. She’s a teacher and musician who must raise a little girl who can’t hear music and a gawky pre-teen boy whose taste in performance runs more toward Guitar Hero. And so she derives a great deal of satisfaction from sitting on a piano bench, teaching basic keyboard skills to her adopted daughter, Esther (Isabelle Fuhrman).

Ah, Esther. Creepy, prim Esther, plucked from amongst the nuns at a local orphanage after daddy John found her in a closed classroom upstairs, working on one of a series of strikingly rendered storybook-style paintings that spoke to the apparent poetry in her soul. Displaying obvious talent and an impressive maturity, for a 9-year-old, Esther immediately won the couple’s hearts, eventually accompanying them home and celebrating her first Christmas as part of the Coleman family, living in their house by the woods and a small lake, somewhere in snowy Connecticut. Is it unfair to say that this poised, serene child is selected in part because she makes an attractive accessory for the couple? Probably not, although Collet-Serra knows better than to belabor the point. It’s enough to see that her skills as a visual artist appeal to her draftsman father, who sees himself reflected in her even more surely than does Kate. (A jealous Daniel sees this immediately; he wants nothing to do with Esther even as his father’s attention becomes focused on her.) And it’s clear that Kate perceives Esther, consciously or not, as a make-good. She is a newly sober mother’s second chance at a third child, and possibly an atonement for her second child’s injury. Farmiga is an apt but unusual choice to play a role that you might expect would be cast with some perky, conventionally pretty (not to mention bankable) Everymom type who would easily sand down the character’s rough edges. She feels bracingly real here, and earns the audience’s rooting interest despite her clear imperfections.

Certainly Kate needs someone to root for her. She’s the first one to notice the dark cloud that seems to follow Esther wherever she goes. For one thing, the girl refuses to take a bath with her mother in the room. And then there’s the Bible she carries around, which looks like something you’d find in a witches’ coven in a Dario Argento movie. Before long, she’s shoved Brenda, one of the mean girls at the local elementary school, down a playground slide, breaking her arm. (Events are complicated somewhat as Max, the only witness to the act but staunchly loyal to her big sister, vouches for Esther’s innocence in the matter.) A call to Sister Abigail at the orphanage, who is dismayed but not especially surprised to hear that the child may have lashed out in violence, only makes matters more unsettled. One thing leads to another, and it’s not long before Esther is growling at Max — in the kind of gravely Slavic voice that I had previously heard emanate only from the mouths of surly Vegas cab-drivers — “Help me hide the body.” Portrayed in preternaturally knowing, ruthless-beyond-her-years fashion by Isabelle Fuhrman, Esther is more than just another bad seed. She’s a cold-eyed, malevolent antagonist with a loony backstory, a ruthless M.O, and a certain creepy blankness — a vessel for you to fill up with your own adult neediness before she sticks the knife in. Outstanding.

Collet-Serra tells the story using multiple subjectivities, conveying a good sense of what each of the characters is feeling as the story progresses. Mostly the sensibility is Kate’s, but the director’s deviations are for good reason, as when he diverts the audience’s attention to the way Esther is perceived by Max (as her canny, confident protector) or by Daniel (as a threat not just to his well-being, but to his nascent masculinity). And there’s a telling moment early, when the film shifts out of apparent third-person narrative mode to a shot from Esther’s POV, as she peeks quickly out of an orphanage window, watching Kate and John make their way up the sidewalk. It’s a little jarring in context, but it establishes the sneaky, malevolent tendencies of Esther before she even appears on-screen. While this tips the film’s hand to a degree, it’s OK because Collet-Serra needs to drop a breadcrumb — just a tiny frisson of menace — to reassure his audience that yes, this is a horror movie. And it’s not the kind of film that plays coy, is-she-imagining-it games with Kate’s perception of Esther’s malevolence. From the moment Esther arrives at the Coleman home it’s apparent that she’s a wicked little critter, and up to no good at all. And, after the film’s refreshingly slow, careful stage-setting, the carnage that erupts in the last half-hour or so is wicked indeed.

Orphan is lurid and over-the-top not just out of a desire to shock or frighten (although there is that), but as a surreal amplification of its real subject. It’s a horror movie about how scary it is to be a parent. Kate spends her time in a state of nearly existential panic over the idea of something bad happening to one of her kids. And it’s a difficult proposition — how do you keep an eye on two children, at all times, without treating them as impossibly fragile creatures or hooking at least one of them up to a harness and a leash? Orphan is a funny movie, partly because its grown-up little girl is such a perfectly eccentric horror-movie type and partly because of its sardonic treatment of Kate’s nurturing instinct, which is facilitated in part by the demolition of generally understood taboos against placing children in too much apparent peril on screen.

Despite that degree of subtextual mockery, the film remains on Mom’s side throughout. When bad things happen to Kate and her kids, the sense of terror conveyed through expert direction and finely tuned performance is complete enough that you can sense exactly how she must feel in the moment. Do you ever have those nightmares where something horrible happens and gives you that sense that you’re sliding helplessly, inexorably, and in slow motion into a world of chaos, pain and regret that will eat at you for the rest of your life? That’s the place where Kate lives for most of Orphan‘s latter half. Not only does she sense that her newly adopted daughter may be a sociopath, but that dawning awareness estranges her from the rest of the family — from Max, who respects Esther too much to rat her out; from Daniel, who’s frankly scared of her; and from John, who is more willing to believe that Kate is back on the sauce, failing her family one more time, than he is to notice that they are being eaten from the inside out by a sweetly smiling parasite whose attacks are as frighteningly psychological, even sexual, as they are brutally physical.

With that, Kate’s sense of despair is complete. It’s one thing to be on edge because your family is in danger. It’s another for your family to turn against you in that moment of mortal peril. Orphan works so well not just because its many outright depictions of children in jeopardy are scary — although they are appropriately bracing and queasy-making — but because its marital drama is even more unsettling.

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