As the worm turns and the wind blows, the cinema has yet to produce a clunker wherein a nun is murdered, and they’re not about to start with Orphan, the latest Bad Seed clone that has the distinction of only pretending to channel our collective anxieties about the wee ones. But that’s a spoiler for later in the review. For now, it’s enough to know that as pleasurable as it is to watch a good Catholic sister bludgeoned repeatedly by a hammer on some lonely Connecticut road, it is even more fulfilling when the very girl to wield the weapon is a freckle-faced psychopath from Russia. Her country of origin is almost obligatory, as the once proud dictatorship has exported little since the Soviet Union’s demise save oil, pain, and half-cocked madmen bent on exploiting both for profit. That Russia and its former republics-by-force are teeming with unwanted kids remains indisputable, though one imagines there are fewer being nurtured by religious safe houses on the eastern seaboard than those gnawing away their remaining digits in the poorly heated storage units dotting the ghostly countryside of the Ukraine. But there she is, the odd duck figure of Esther, the outwardly nine-year-old figure of polite, quaint good cheer, who masks the undeniable evil of her motherland.
On its face, Orphan retains the smell of a Reagan era relic, complete with sweeping potshots against our Cold War foe, as well as veiled threats against daring to venture beyond the picket fence for extensions to the family unit. In that hallowed time so near and yet so far, American women were sent into deep torment whenever they inhaled too deeply in the presence of babysitters, child care facilities, or adoption agencies. The silver screen replied in kind, ensuring that moms and moms-to-be were overwhelmed with images of non-biological caregivers immersed in mayhem, abuse, perversion, and murder. If you dropped off little Tommy on the way to work, it was all but guaranteed that he’d be bleeding from some orifice upon your return. Additionally, he’d have been exposed to Satanic rituals, ungodly chants, and perhaps overly friendly whispers about the merits of socialism. Indeed, homosexuals and sadists were in charge of your family, and the only way to turn the tide was to stay the hell home. And adoption, while still preferable to abortion, was nonetheless unseemly and Biblically questionable, as only the sinful failed to reproduce without extraordinary methods. God alone grants progeny, not signed contracts with the state.
That the movies have channeled this retro paranoia about kids decidedly not our own is a compelling turn, and worth revisiting again and again. Even more, because Esther is not American, her presence amongst great wealth and achievement serves only to remind the good white folks at the center of this tale how the invasion from without serves to exacerbate the problems within. For the Colemans are a troubled lot, what with mom Kate an ex-boozehound who nearly killed her deaf daughter after passing out from too much wine, and dad John a cheating scoundrel who wears passive aggressive like a second skin. Worst of all, mom maintains a bizarre shrine to her stillborn daughter, complete with a small placard and rose bushes, as if to live in the past is the best way to ensure a bright future. This family is sick and twisted in their own right, but like all Americans, they have disguised their self-loathing and rage with denial, therapy, and hidden diaries. Besides, mom is out of work ever since she quit a prestigious post at Yale. And yes, what better way to bring it all home than with a replacement child for the blue waxwork that spilled from mommy’s loins those many years ago? And rather than a toddler, select the artistic wallflower who speaks with unnatural authority and confidence, well, because she’s actually a 32-year-old escaped mental patient with a rare disorder that makes her pretty much a proportional midget. Pardon my slip.
That the wild child is no child at all is disappointing to say the least, if only because Hollywood so rarely makes actual children responsible for untold misery. Esther is insane in a way only Uncle Joe Stalin could love, though not even he had the sack to personally stab people to death. She’s right there with blade in hand, and though she savagely kills papa and a well-intentioned nun (along with an injured pigeon), most of her mayhem occurs off-screen, as a Russian doctor informs us that she’s responsible for at least seven deaths in her home country. She’s especially fond of arson, if only to cover her crimes, though she only manages to destroy a treehouse on the Coleman property. Esther is also a barrel of laughs sexually, as she routinely seduces her adopted father with a combination of knowing looks and, once mom is tucked away in a hospital after being framed for madness, goth makeup, obnoxious lipstick, and a jug of cheap burgundy. Dad had better comply, as Esther killed her previous adopted parents after the man of the house resisted the come-ons of what he believed was a third-grader. Again, knowing that this little bitch is actually a contemporary of Mr. Coleman lessens the overall impact, as a truly dirty screenplay could have had great fun with a youngster trying desperately to bed her papa, especially when she’s from a country that all but sanctions similar behavior in the name of boosting the economy.
We never learn how exactly Esther made her way from Russia to the United States, but it’s enough to know she’s here, lustful and ready for business. She lies, cheats, and manipulates, even resorting to breaking her own arm if it means setting mom and dad against each other. In another delightful scene, Esther holds a box cutter to young Daniel Coleman’s testicles while he freely urinates all over himself. Of course, despite no fewer than four acts of attempted murder, Mr. Coleman refuses to believe the girl is rotten to the core, maybe because he’s just now admitting that yeah, the woman he married is a little nutty. And she’s never been the same since her last pregnancy resulted in death. He’s still unconvinced even after his son is set on fire and suffocated with a pillow in the hospital. Surely, then, the best course of action after your adopted daughter has nearly ended your son’s life – twice! – is to take her home and get roaring drunk with the keys to the gun safe nowhere to be found. But he pays dearly for his reluctance to face reality, as he is first peppered with kisses and come-hither stares on the couch and then, after the circuit breakers have been smashed, stabbed brutally in the kitchen. Esther enjoys the killing as much as intercourse, and it’s a bold leap for the film to sexualize violence via the hand of a girl not yet wearing a bra.
So what if Vera Farmiga is now the go-to girl for moms with murderous children; she still looks pretty good in a pair of tight jeans. And who cares if we are yet again treated to the killer who isn’t really dead, even if she’s pinned to the greenhouse floor with enough shards of glass to gut a walrus. I admire any motion picture with designs on keeping us insecure, cautious, and fearful of the very people we routinely see naked. Blood is thicker than water only in fairy tales and hallucinations. In reality, family is almost always the primary source of our anxieties and murderous impulses, and it’s sooner than later that we should at last consider our offspring as unknowable tyrants who seek our approval only as a means to dispatch our bodies to the great beyond. Orphan wants us to be afraid; locked tight in our pathological distrust of our very shadows. Add to that a great sense of play and guiltless foreboding, and the summer has seen its first real slice of trash deserving of a long shelf life. Or at least until Esther rises from her watery grave for a sequel.