LOS ANGELES - Esther is unfailingly polite, a sensitive painter and pianist, a vision of traditional feminine charm in her prim dresses and bows. But this 9-year-old also has a way with a hammer and a handgun and knows a thing or two about arson and destruction of evidence.
Yes, she's complicated, the little girl at the center of Orphan, a descendant from a long line of cinematic evil children. Still, despite similarities to predecessors like The Bad Seed and The Omen, this well-crafted flick has frights all its own.
Director Jaume Collet-Serra, working from a devilishly clever script by David Leslie Johnson, maintains steady suspense while mercifully mixing in some moments of dark humor. He's got a strong cast to work with in Vera Farmiga, Peter Sarsgaard, and CCH Pounder (Claudette from The Shield), but in young Isabelle Fuhrman, he has a formidable force. Fuhrman, who was just 11 when she shot Orphan, can command the screen with just a sunny smile or a menacing glare. She's called upon to do some gnarly stuff here and more than rises to the challenge.
Sure, sometimes Esther seems like an impossibly unstoppable killing machine - like a Soviet-era spy in a pint-size body - but seeing how far Orphan will go is part of the fun.
Farmiga and Sarsgaard star as Kate and John, a wealthy Connecticut couple reeling from the stillbirth of their third child. Wanting to give all that love to a child who needs it, they decide to adopt the Russian-born Esther, who's obviously more than a little different from the other girls at the orphanage. (Pounder plays the nun who arranges the adoption.) Still, that's much of the allure in their eyes, that she is her own person.
When the couple brings her home, their son, Danny (Jimmy Bennett), immediately feels threatened by her. (He has no idea how right he is.) But their other daughter, Max, takes to her and in no time looks up to her as a big sister. The character is hearing-impaired, as is the actress playing her, Aryana Engineer, who expresses so much emotion by just widening her eyes or scrunching down to hide amid her stuffed animals. She's adorable but she's also crucial to showing us just how rotten Esther truly is.
Soon accidents start occurring, there are flare-ups at school and on the playground, and Esther always happens to be around. Kate grows suspicious but John frustratingly fails to believe her, the product of lingering mistrust because of her previous alcoholism and irresponsibility. You want to grab him by the shoulders and shake him, he's so blind to Esther's wicked ways, even as the damage worsens.
Then again, Esther's so sweetly manipulative she's hard to resist; in some of the ridiculous moments she shares with John, you don't know whether to laugh with Orphan or at it.
Farmiga runs and screams and flails a lot - Orphan is reminiscent of 2007's evil-child thriller Joshua, in which she also starred as a besieged mom - but she also brings believability to Kate's inner demons, which are so relevant to the way she responds to the increasingly dangerous Esther.
But of course there has to be an explanation for her behavior, and it comes in the form of a twist. You won't see it coming, but this revelation - and the disturbing images that accompany the climactic chaos Esther causes - will probably leave you with a restless night's sleep.