Review of Orphan

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A couple devastated by the loss of their unborn baby decides to adopt, taking in a girl named Esther (Isabelle Fuhrman). Almost as soon as they welcome the little girl into their home, however, an alarming series of events begins to unfold, leading Kate (Vera Farmiga) to believe that there's something wrong with the her. Concerned for the safety of her family, Kate tries to get her husband John (Peter Sarsgaard) to see past Esther's sweet façade, but her warnings go unheeded.
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Movie Review: "Orphan"

-- Rating: R
Length: 123 minutes
Release Date: July 21, 2009
Directed by: Jaume Collet-Serra
Genre: Mystery, Thriller

The opening sequence of "Orphan" makes it evident this is not a movie for the squeamish or faint-hearted. The hellish story begins when John (Peter Sarsgaard) rushes his pregnant wife Kate (Vera Farmiga) to the hospital. Kate's belief that something is not right is proven when she ends up delivering a stillborn child. Later we find Kate popping an antidepressant as she continues grieving. As an opening shot for a mystery-thriller, this one is picture-perfect.

The audience soon discovers that virtually nothing is working out for the couple. Kate, suffering from a drinking problem that made her lose her job, is undergoing therapy to cope with the loss of her baby. Her pre-adolescent son Daniel (Jimmy Bennett) is un-supportive, and her five-year-old daughter Max (Aryana Engineer) is deaf and mute.

The couple tries to deal with their loss by adopting a child. They fall in love at first sight with Esther (Isabelle Fuhrman), a nine-year-old from Russia who lives at a local orphanage. The audience has every reason to love the girl as well. Bright, polite, pretty, and vivacious, Esther seems to be just the person to set things right in the family. The director never lets viewers forget they are watching a mystery-thriller. The first note of discord is struck when Daniel refuses to warm up to Esther. Max is delighted, but Daniel seems oddly unhappy.

The movie picks up speed with Kate having second thoughts about the girl. Kate has warning bells over minor issues. Esther refuses to let her mother bathe her. The girl persists in wearing old-fashioned dresses. The youngster has hidden a Bible with a man's photo in a drawer. In addition, Esther has a lot more knowledge of sex than an average nine-year-old. The audience is forced to conclude that chances of a happy ending are remote.

Director Jaume Collet-Serra uses the film's outdoor winter scenes to enhance the sense of gloominess. Still, Esther's violent behavior is the focal point for the dark mood that Collet-Serra wants to project. She mercilessly kills an injured bird with a brick. A girl gets pushed off the slide by Esther as punishment for teasing and ends up breaking her ankle. Max is emotionally blackmailed into silence.

The couple first learns all may not be well with their new daughter from Sister Abigail (CCH Pounder), who heads the local orphanage. She tells them Esther was found nearby after several people had horrific accidents. For saying this, Sister Abigail must die. Esther pushes Max in the path of her car to create an accident and then proceeds to bludgeon the sister with a hammer.

There is no going back once the audience sees the real Esther. She harasses and blackmails the family into submission. Daniel is threatened with a pocket knife to his neck. Kate is traumatized by the desecration of her baby's memorial site. John is manipulated into opposing Kate in a gruesome scene in which Esther breaks her own hand. Max is almost murdered when Esther disengages the SUV's parking brake. The beleaguered Kate is pushed into almost hitting the bottle again.

Daniel convinces Max to disclose the location of the hammer used to murder Sister Abigail. However, he ends up in a burning tree house set on fire by none other than Esther. She is the twisted youngster who will stop at nothing to get what she wants. It is difficult to believe that an adult could do the things shown in this movie. The sight of a nine-year-old innocent-looking girl being so malevolent is very discomforting.

After Daniel survives the burning tree house, Esther tries to smother him with a pillow at the hospital. That act finally causes Kate to snap and attack her adopted daughter. The first reaction of all bystanders is to protect the poor child from the violent adult. Kate is sedated, leaving Esther free to execute her plan.

Esther's Bible, which had prompted Kate to contact the Saarne Institute in Estonia, leads the mother to the path of discovery. The organization unravels the twist in the tale. After the incredible truth about Esther is revealed, the movie's inevitable showdown is reached. Kate finally succeeds in getting rid of evil Esther from her family but not before paying a very heavy price.

The twist, almost on par with the one featured in "The Ring," helps the audience understand how Esther could do the things shown in the movie. Yet, the sense of disbelief and horror does not leave even after the truth unfolds. The movie's scary and disturbing premise combined with Fuhrman's near-flawless acting makes "Orphan" a very impressive watch.

Rating: 4 out of 5