Cold in the earth—and the deep snow piled above thee,
Far, far, removed, cold in the dreary grave!
—Emily Bronte, “Remembrance”
I think I made a mistake.
—Sister Abigail (CCH Pounder)
It snows a lot in Connecticut. More precisely, it snows a lot in the woodsy area inhabited Kate (Vera Farmiga) and her husband John (Peter Sarsgaard). Or even more precisely, it snows whenever they’re seated inside a house or doctor’s office and the camera pulls out to show a window. The snow is pretty and soft, except when accompanied by thunder and wind.
As pervasive as it is, the snow actually has little to do with the plot of Orphan, a surprisingly perverse horror movie about a murderous nine-year-old. Instead, the snow provides a not-so-subtle metaphor for John and Kate’s backstory traumas, covered up for years and now, after they’ve adopted Esther (Isabelle Fuhrman), revealed layer by layer.
It’s not a bad idea for a horror movie, that the seeming victims are not innocent and their complicated past weighs on their present. Still, it’s not so easy to forgive John and Kate their past errors in judgment, because the new ones they’re making are so egregious. Consider their visit to the hilltop “Home for Girls” where they find Esther. At first their reactions to the little cuties playing are aptly tentative: they’ve just lost a child to stillbirth, and Kate’s feeling pressured to go along with the adoption, even though John has told her not “to go through with this for me.” As they make their separate ways through rooms and hallways, John comes on Esther, alone in a classroom, painting and singing “The Glory of Love.” While John and Kate sit to watch her be creative and cute, Sister Abigail (CCH Pounder) happens by, a close-up ensuring that you see her look of consternation.
While it’s not Kate and John’s fault that Sister Abigail doesn’t pass along her trepidations, they buy Esther’s sweetie-pie performance despite a host of warning signs—she throws a fit if you try to remove the velvet ribbons she keeps on her neck and wrists, she wears dresses fit for a Victorian doll and speaks primly, ostensibly because she’s Russian, but more obviously because she’s way too precious in her own mind (“Nobody’s really talked to me before,” she purrs to her parents-to-be, “I guess I’m different”). Their kids, however, notice something odd about Esther right away (“Why does she dress like that?”). Danny (Jimmy Bennett) looks to be jealous, as John pays undue attention to the new daughter’s arrival without even bothering to feign interest in his son’s fervent Guitar Hero performance. Six-year-old Max (Aryana Engineer, who is excellent) is more willing to cut slack, but still, if her parents were paying attention, they’d notice her discomfort, which increases exponentially as the bad seed turns patently psychotic.
Then again, Jaume Collet-Serra’s movie is relentlessly about family dysfunction, parents keeping secrets from children and children manipulating parents and other children. Kate, a recovering alcoholic who’s lost a job at Yale, is seeing a therapist and taking medication. John, an architect who works at home, both resents his wife’s imbalance and welcomes it, as it confirms his self-image as the beset breadwinner, not responsible for the anger she bears him. In between arguing over just how weird the new girl is, these so-called adults are either grieving over the dead baby or having not-precisely missionary-style sex in the kitchen. When mom tries to talk over this sordid spectacle with accidental witness Esther, she’s shocked to hear that Esther is not only not traumatized by seeing her parents in flagrante delicto, but also, she’s okay with the fact that adults “fuck.”
The moment encapsulates Esther’s particularly malevolent legerdemain—and moreover, Kate’s inability to do anything about it. On one level, this inability has to do with a familiar culture-wide hypocrisy: children are asexual, but little girls are regularly dressed up and pitched as sexual objects. The key word here is “object.” A deviant killer child—even one who bludgeons victims with a hammer or stabs them repeatedly with a knife—is a pretty mundane notion in a horror movie. A sexually desirous child is something else. Esther never appears artless, certainly, but she does look young. The moment she appears as well to know about sex, and moreover to want it, well, that layer of exposure is too much. Now, she’s scary.
All this doesn’t make Orphan especially smart or even a very effective horror movie. It does achieve some mightily entertaining lunacy, with images so over the top o that viewers laugh out loud and yell at the screen. But it also steps back from this achievement, eventually explaining Esther’s monstrosity so as to save itself from charges of immorality. It’s an understandable capitulation, but gauche and gutless too.