From Rhoda in “The Bad Seed” to Damien in the “Omen,” children have been some of the best villains. It’s partly due to the collective anxiety about parenting, but mostly it’s the idea that something so seemingly innocent and untainted as a child can hide evil intentions. We know adults tend to have agendas. But we have to take children at face value because if we don’t, it makes us a******s.
Kate (Vera Farmiga, in her second Evil Child film) and John Coleman (the rather terrific Peter Sarsgaard) already have two kids, but they still feel an ocean of emptiness after their third spawning attempt is stillborn. Their issues are exacerbated by affairs and Kate’s history of alcohol abuse, which led to their daughter’s deafness. Kate and John decide that the only way to repair this rift is to adopt and transfer the love they felt for their dead child to a live one. This is a poor reason for adoption, but it certainly doesn’t help when the one you pick turns out to be hella evil.
Esther (Isabelle Fuhrman, the goth Dakota Fanning) is a precocious orphan with a sinister Russian accent and a penchant for vintage dresses. The Colemans ignore all the warning signs, like knowing glances from nuns and the mysterious death of Esther’s former adopted parents, and decide that this little loner is the perfect Band-Aid for their family.
Though Esther always seems to be present when tragedy strikes, she is also a master manipulator. So when Kate begins to suspect their new prodigy of nefarious deeds, no one, least of all her husband, believes her. This all plays very well into Esther’s clandestine plan. And watching it unravel is great fun.
Kate is on her own to find out the truth about Esther’s origins before it’s too late. Meanwhile, Esther wreaks all kinds of awesome havoc whilst delivering badass one-liners with cold Russian inflection. The Coleman’s youngest, their deaf daughter Maxine (Aryana Engineer), also pulls off a marvelous, entirely wordless performance with wide, expressive eyes.
“Orphan” does employ a few horror clichés such as therapy exposition, cheap scares, and a hilarious Google search montage. And once the twist is revealed, the ending does drag on a bit. But, for the most part, Esther is an entertaining and solid addition to the Evil Child canon. There may be something wrong with Esther, but there’s nothing terribly wrong with “Orphan.”