I hadn't really taken note that Orphan clearly omits "the" in the title. But there is really no question that "orphan" in this case is used as a noun referring to the young, and slightly creepy, girl on the poster and in the preview. After seeing the film, I'm not so sure. I'm probably giving the makers of this horror film too much credit for cleverness, but I have a hard time not praising a film that can knock the wind out of me.
Orphan is Jaume Collet-Serra's third film and I'm willing to hazard a guess that it is his best despite the fact that I haven't seen House of Wax (Paris Hilton style) and Goal II (?). Collet-Serra's latest is not one that you should judge by its cover or by his previous works. A shrewd sense of detail and pacing combined with solid acting go a long way, especially in a horror film where it is so unexpected.
The Colemans are a perfectly flawed 21st century upper class cultured family. Patriarch John (Peter Sarsgaard) is a designer, presumably of houses based on the looks of their home, and matriarch Kate (Vera Farmiga) is a composer who taught at Yale until the traumatic death of their third child in birth. She suffered a breakdown of sorts that caused her to—as her mother-in-law resentfully puts it—find her moment of clarity. Their two kids, tween Daniel and young Max who happens to be hearing-impaired, seem perfectly adjusted to the dysfunction. Amongst the infidelity, therapy, addiction recovery and other unspoken problems, the couple has decided that adopting a child will help them resolve their issues. Enter Esther: a 'different' child originally from Russia who lives in a home for orphaned children. Wise beyond her years, Esther seems like the perfect fit for the Colemans.
It's hard to know writer David Johnson is mocking the new American nuclear family or reveling in it. Regardless, in a very short amount of time the film is able to build enough sympathy for this family that we really start hoping we got the synopsis wrong. That Esther turns out not the polite and charming child that the Colemans want is not a big secret or surprise. What you are likely to have wrong about the film, however, is just how maniacal this little girl turns out to be. Without reveling specific plot points, I'll just say that Esther has now replaced Oh Dea-su (Oldboy) as the icon with the hammer. There is an unapologetic physicality to the brutality that will cause even the most jaded to squirm.
Orphan roles the dice pretty hard with an opening scene that might send some for the exit, but only does so to make sure you are awake. The reigns are pulled in pretty quickly allowing the story to build in a very organic manner. Instead of building characters out of superficial tags and soliloquies, Orphan lets the scenarios do the talking. This is especially true with the three kids, Daniel, Max and Esther. The audience is permitted to be an observer rather than an information receptacle. A pivotal scene in a playground is a study in patience. You know what is going to happen (especially if you have seen the trailer) but the build up is a series of visual and aural montages that are savvy in their simplicity.
Sarsgaard and Farmiga do their part as a comfortable couple, but it is the blunt acting from kids that carry this film. Max is the emotional center of Orphan as she slowly moves from naive and trusting to suspicious and scared. Coerced into being Esther's ally, Max simply wants to be loved by her new big sister. Although older and more distanced, Daniel is no less fragile and susceptible to Esther's bizarre scare tactics. Esther fills out the triangle with a frightening chameleon-like performance that is able to shift from good to evil at the drop of a hat.
As you might expect, there is a puzzle to be solved and the clues are doled out slowly, allowing time to chew on the nagging questions of why. Due to the fact that she is a child, there is a real need for a rational explanation for why Esther is the way she is, whether it be supernatural or psychological. When the explanation arrives, it does so not to satisfy the audience, but to allow Orphan to shift into overdrive. The last fifteen minutes is nothing but classic horror film fodder that has nothing to do with logic and everything to do with adrenaline. It's a struggle not to say too much about this film, because there is a sly cognitive shift that occurs with the big twist. Horror films tend to be throwaway money machines that are hardly ever allowed the space to be crafty without being overtly crass. Orphan belongs in a class with Them (aka Ils) and The Descent that offers a brain-powered punch.