Orphan (2009) by Jaume Collet-Serra
Retro Review by Andrew Swafford
Orphan is of those rare cases where a twist adds a new layer of meaning to a movie without negating what had previously been built.
[Quick Side Note]
I feel as though it may not be fashionable anymore to focus on ~theme~ in film criticism (as opposed to visuals), but I love how horror movies tend to be so packed with thematic meaning, always finding ways to symbolize and recontextualize the things that scare us in real life, returning to the same familiar themes over and over to create a rich thematic mythology of what worries us and how to combat it. We don't fear monsters so much as we fear abstractions, like loneliness or the unkown. Grief and religion are common themes in horror, because the genre carries with it so much death and so many supernatural entities that it naturally demands for us to make peace with suffering and question what we're willing to believe in. But one of the most common threads I notice in the horror canon is gender/sexuality (as you know if you’re read the notes on my All Horror Movies Suck list on Letterboxd). Part of this might just be due to my own feminism and automatic instinct to look for that sort of thing, but it also has to do with how horror is one of the only genres (aside from the Romantic Comedy) where women are the default protagonists.
The horror genre’s centering of women may have initially been the case due to some sexist assumptions about women being more easily frightened and therefore natural subjects to respond to horror with screaming and flailing arms (therefore transferring that fear onto the audience, programmed to relate to the protagonist by default, and therefore making the film “scary”). But the genre quickly evolved to what I see as pop culture’s foremost laboratory for interrogating gender roles, with so many of the genre’s most classic pieces shining a light on how terrifying it is to be a woman: Psycho is about a woman’s fear of voyeurism; Rosemary’s Baby is about a woman’s fear of pregnancy; Alien is about a woman’s fear of rape; Carrie is about a teen girl’s fear of social alienation; The Shining is about a woman’s fear of domestic abuse; The Silence of the Lambs is about a woman’s fear of not being taken seriously in the workplace…the list goes on.
[End Side Note]
And Jaume Collet-Serra’s Orphan, thanks to its twist, is about so many things.
(By the way: Zach wrote about Collet-Serra's most recent film The Shallows here and I wrote about it again here. I'm not really going to focus on his style in this piece, though, sorry! It's all theme from here on out.)
The first thing Orphan is about is botched motherhood. Vera Farmiga—the beating heart of the modern horror industry, and whose work in The Conjuring is as life-and-faith-affirming as anything—plays Kate, a married mother of two who lost her third child to miscarriage and chooses to adopt in order to fill the void left by her unborn daughter. “I wanna take the love we felt for Jessica…and I wanna give it to somebody who really needs it,” she says to her husband, the night before the visiting the orphanage. Adoption allows her a second chance at motherhood, and you can feel her worry about the second time going south too. When she ends up adopting Esther, a preternaturally clever child who, later, seems to be interested in (and capable of!) ruining Kate’s entire life. If you want to look at the narrative as a complete abstraction, it is imagining the worst apprehensions of a hopeful mother. Surely all parents worry about all the things that could go wrong in their child’s upbringing—what if everything *did* go wrong? (This anxiety being obviously amplified for a mother who has lost a child in the past, of course.) What happens if your child learns profanity too early, or catches you and your spouse having sex, or becomes a bully at school, or is seriously hurt by a too-careless act of punishment…what if? Orphan both validates those fears and appeases them, making flesh out of the worst case scenario and making the fear of *everything* going wrong seem absurd and unrealistic.
The second thing Orphan is about is gaslighting—making someone doubt their own credibility. Of all the members of Kate’s family, only she is aware of and wiling to speak about the malicious intentions of little orphan Esther. But of course, they don’t listen; her husband, her mother-in-law, and her therapist all dismiss Kate’s concerns as the ravings of a hysterical woman, too wrapped up in her own emotions and anxieties to see that there’s really a rational explanation for all this! Vera Farmiga is truly one of our most underappreciated actors, and she’s perfect for this role of Kate; Vera Farmiga in conversation with another actor truly feels like an active listener and an emotionally authentic speaker—she is being real with whoever she is talking to, even when that realness means getting forceful or frantic. And, crucially, she is honest. This isn't one of those but what if they're just imagining it horror movies--in Orphan's world, even posing that question is cruel. Vera Farmiga's Kate is a person worth taking seriously—and every time she isn’t is another opportunity for Esther to take advantage of it, ultimately escalating into the complete dissolution of the family unit. Orphan, again, gives us a look at the worst case scenario—what happens when we deny someone (especially a mother) the truth of their lived experience?
The third thing Orphan is about is the pathologizing transgressions—Orphan questions why certain sins are character-defining, while others are often forgotten. And this is why no one does take Kate’s concern seriously. It’s not because they’re just cartoonishly malicious or openly hate women (any movie about gender that draws an antagonist like this is likely playing with straw man tactics). Instead, there is a rationale: Kate is a recovering alcoholic whose drinking made her a dangerously neglectful mother in the past. The addict’s mindset is pathologized—because she has shown weakness in the past, it is assumed that she carries that weakness with her still and therefore her perspective isn’t always deemed trustworthy. Her husband John, on the other hand (who is brought to life by a very well-grounded performance by Peter Sarsgaard), has a history of his own: he’s guilty of cheating, as well as hiding it for years. Kate presumably forgave him for the sake of the family—but John’s trustworthiness is never called into question, even though his sin is deceit. His crime is not pathologized as Kate’s is, making the gaslighting process happen organically.
And the fourth thing Orphan is about is bottled-up sexual desire. Before the twist, the many lustful moments of the film merely feel like artifacts of domestic authenticity—a lived-in household, where the the husband had a previous affair, the eldest son hides Playboys in his treehouse, and mom and dad try to sneak in some scandalous sex in the kitchen after the kids have gone to sleep. But Orphan’s brilliant twist makes all of these moments meaningful without negating any of the previously outlined thematics. (And this is where I am actually going to reveal the twist of Orphan, so skip to the final paragraph here if you want to find out for yourself; I think the movie will still be exciting if you already know it, for the record). Esther, we learn in the film’s final act, is not actually a child—she is a woman in her thirties who has a hormone disorder called hypopituitarism, essentially stunting her growth and keeping her in the body of a 9-year old for life. Due to her perceived youth, Esther has never been able to express her sexuality, despite being sexually mature for almost 20 years, and she has found that the only way to possess carnal knowledge is to manipulate and seduce older men through a long-con that the movie finds Kate trapped in the middle of—Esther wants to have sex with Kate’s husband, and will do anything to get the wife out of the way. When this piece of evidence comes into focus, all of the previous moments of sexual indulgence all feel like they belong on the same spectrum: John cheated when he feel’s alienated by his wife’s substance abuse, the son has to hide his Playboys because he’s too young for his sexual expression to be socially acceptable, and the married couple can’t have sex without fear of being heard by their children. Esther is suffering from the same condition—sexual frustration—only amplified by extreme circumstances, and therefore deserving of extreme horror movie incident.
Orphan does what horror movies do best, in my opinion. It thoroughly (and sometimes uncomfortably) explores the dangers we face in real life, while also presenting them to us in the form of an otherworldly conceit that makes those threats seem tangible, understandable, and, sometimes, just a little ridiculous. You have to suspend your disbelief in the execution of Orphan a bit, but that’s what makes it cathartic—the sheer implausibility of the whole affair should be enough to help you sleep at night. So allow me to be the first to say: thanks, horror movies, for helping us sleep at night.