Monday, July 27, 2009

"Trouble has a way of finding her": the pleasures of Jaume Collet-Serra's Orphan

A pregnant woman and her husband, Kate and John Coleman, enter a hospital. Already in labor, Kate groans as her husband places her in a wheelchair and starts to guide her inside. Then she notices blood dripping between her legs, leaving a trail on the floor. Suddenly lying on the operating table, she finds that the contractions have stopped, so she asks what's happened. The nurse tells her she's sorry for her loss. The woman is confused. Her husband's there to videotape. Then, as he congratulates her, the doctor hands her a bloody corpse of a baby. She screams, and wakes up.

So begins Orphan, part of a new breed of horror films that, according to the recent July 31st Entertainment Weekly, are increasingly made with the female audience in mind. As Christine Spines writes in "Horror Films and the Women Who Love Them,"

"The latest is Orphan, which stars Vera Farmiga (The Departed) as a grieving mom forced to defend her family from her newly adopted child. The actress is a jolt junkie herself. `I grew up loving to scare and be scared,' says Farmiga. `It elicits this surge of adrenaline you don't get from any other genre. Maybe women are so drawn to it because we're more emotional creatures and it's such a visceral experience.'"

Aside from the psychological nuances of Farmiga's character, I liked Orphan for its references to Hitchcock and Kubrick, its skillful acting, and for the hilarious way it shows how modern dithering parenting techniques fall apart when up against a smart evil brat. The movie doesn't mind lifting from Kubrick's The Shining.

For example, dark-haired Esther's old fashioned dresses resemble the ones worn by the Grady twins that Danny encounters on one of his Hot Wheels rides around the Overlook hotel. Both movies share a recovering alcoholic, a parent who messes up a child's arm when he or she lifts it in anger (kind of), an African American who attempts to save the family, and a wintry snowed-in setting that makes desperate, last-second driving at night difficult.

When it comes to borrowing from Hitchcock, director Collet-Saura likes to make a scene disorienting by the way he places the camera. He often shows Kate in profile to distance the viewer from her perspective. He also alludes to Marion Crane's freaking when her boss sees her in the car at the beginning of Psycho. In Orphan, Kate distractedly pulls out into traffic to almost crash into a speeding semi. At another time, when Kate realizes something's wrong, the camera moves up over her head in a fated way similar to the "This matter is best disposed of over a great height--over water" moment in Hitchcock's North by Northwest.

To compound her longstanding grief over the stillborn baby, Kate has a drinking problem (although she has stopped for a year), and she lost her job at Yale. So even though they already have two children--Daniel (Jimmy Bennett) and Max (a younger deaf sister played by Aryana Engineer)--Kate and her husband attempt to replace the lost child with Russian Esther (Isabelle Fuhrman), who they find serenely painting upstairs in an orphanage. Esther smiles and talks a good game about "taking bad things that happen and turning them into good things," but she has some telling oddities. For instance, in public she must always wear antiquated dresses and ribbons around her neck and her wrists. I spent much of the movie thinking her head would roll off if someone undid the one around her neck. Also, Esther has a bad tendency to resort to extreme measures if someone slights her or proves a possible adversary.

Esther's delightfully sneaky and manipulative, and she proves adept at playing one parent against another, or a psychiatrist against them both. If poor Kate tries to defy the girl, John (Peter Sarsgaard) takes them both to Dr. Browning (Margot Martindale), who turns against Kate for projecting her "feelings of inadequacy as a mother." When Kate tries to answer, Dr. Browning says "You're blocking her attempts to bond. She just needs a little patience and understanding."

As Kate and John's other children Daniel and Max get involved in Esther's vicious machinations, one realizes how quickly a child could get accustomed to violence. Their experience with Esther is not that different from the old fairy tales before they got sanitized by Disney, where Cinderella would arrange for her two stepsisters to chop up their feet with an ax so they can fit in the glass slipper. In the same way, Max and Daniel acknowledge the menace in their house long before their parents do. It's only our adult sense of decorum and civilization that makes violence seem that unusual an occurrence.

In comparison to other film genres, horror films still strike me as more potentially realistic, because they reflect the Darwinian struggle for survival, and they call attention to sides of our nature that, say, a romantic comedy would just as soon gloss over. In an earlier scene, Daniel is in the midst of shooting a paint gun at action figures in the woods when a bird hops down within his sights. Without thinking much, he shoots and stuns the bird, which lies twitching on the ground. Esther walks up and says matter-of-factly "Are you going to put it out of its misery?" When, confused, he says no, she replies "It is in great pain. It will starve to death. Is that what you want?" Then, exasperated, she picks up a rock and crushes the bird. So it is with Esther's behavior around people who threaten her. Her methods are primitive, but they do make sense.


Hokahey said...

Your post and the Spines article in EW make me want to see this now. I was going to let it slip by because the basic scenario (childless couple adopts child from hell) has been done so often. I will look for the Kubrick and Hitchcock connections. As for Hitchcock, I have always loved his disorienting camera placements - or his sudden close-ups on some related object.

FilmDr said...

The film does have its flaws. It runs on a little long in the end, and the director can rely heavily on loud abrupt sounds to heighten a scene. If you like horror films, however, you might enjoy it.

Dennis Cozzalio said...

Nice piece, FilmDr. I like that you found an intelligent way of engaging with the film without dwelling too much on the developments of the third act. This is a challenge I will attempt to rise to as well, so it's nice to have a good example set before me. I was riveted by this movie-- the first five minutes being a particularly difficult challenge for me (my wife and I went through an awful late-term stillbirth 12 years ago), and once I made it through that section I felt like I could endure anything. But what I found surprising about Orphan is how that sequence (one worthy of DePalma, I think) is not just tossed off as a gross-out exploitation starter, but as a sequence that leads us directly into a better grounding and understanding in Farmiga's character.

This is a very good movie, and you did it justice. Thanks!

FilmDr said...

Thanks, Dennis. I was riveted, too. The movie mostly succeeds because of the way Collet-Saura integrates Esther's issues within the larger context of the family's (especially Kate's) psychological baggage without ever being heavy-handed, predictable, or obvious in the way it plays on the audience's sympathies.

To elaborate a bit on my conclusion--Daniel doesn't want to face his aggressive side after mortally harming the bird, but Esther never has any trouble being self-aware of her vindictive streak or any one else's for that matter. In comparison to other horror villains who kill indiscrimately, Esther always has her reasons for her actions, and that helps make her character compelling.

Sam Juliano said...

I saw this over the weekend, and found it formulaic and mean-spirited. It was a rather lame entry in the Omen sub-category, but it did have some well-timed jolts. i respect you for not just dismissing the film, and finding (as is usually the case) elements that run counter to the general perception. I did take my kids, and had to sweat out that seduction scene.

FilmDr said...

Thanks for your comment, Sam. Certainly the movie is formulaic in places, but whereas The Omen has a strong supernatural element, Orphan stays grounded in a plausible context, and that may be one reason why I liked it better than the average horror film.