In the wake of their third child's stillbirth, Kate and John Coleman long for healing. Perhaps, they believe, adopting an older child will help bring closure to a chapter of their lives scarred by grief.
"I want to take the love we felt for Jessica," Kate tells John, "and I want to give it to someone who really needs it."
Which brings the couple to an orphanage where John meets a 9-year-old Russian named Esther who's singing and painting in a room—by herself. Esther wins John's heart instantly and Kate's almost as fast. And Sister Abigail is delighted that the little girl, who keeps to herself, has opened up to a pair of prospective parents.
Three weeks later, Esther comes home to her new family: Kate, John and their two children. Maxine (who goes by Max) is perhaps four years old and almost completely deaf. She bonds with her new big sister with a passion. It's a different story with Daniel. Teetering on the edge of adolescence, Daniel has already slouched into a glum, expressionless, "whatever" approach to life. To him, Esther isn't a new member of the family. She's a threat.
Still, it looks as if Kate's idyllic dreams of a complete family will come true. Mom seems to connect with her new daughter. Max has a new best friend. And Esther takes a special shine to her new daddy.
But wherever Esther goes, trouble follows.
A meanspirited bully ends up with a broken leg after a playground "accident." Sister Abigail disappears. The family's SUV rolls down a hill with Max trapped inside. And at home, things start to get, well, weird in ways Kate notices but John denies—a difference of opinion that increasingly puts them at odds with one another.
By the time Kate begins to suspect that things with their adopted orphan aren't as they seem, it may already be too late to keep her family from falling prey to Esther's shocking secret.
Kate and John are committed to each other, despite the fact that they've faced significant struggles in their marriage. Kate is a recovering alcoholic, and both parties in the marriage, we learn, have had affairs. Still, they're trying to make the best of it, and both parents love their kids (even if Dad doesn't always know how to connect with Daniel). The family also cherishes Jessica's dear memory. A plaque in her honor reads, "I never knew you, but I loved you." By the film's conclusion, Kate morphs from a fragile recovering addict into a fierce lioness when the time comes for her to defend their den against a malicious interloper.
Sister Abigail is kind, attentive and concerned for the children in her care. She's been deceived regarding Esther's unbelievable backstory. So if Esther is a bad egg—and believe me, she is—it's not the fault of this caring, conscientious nun and those with whom she works.
A mean girl at school labels Esther a "Jesus freak" when she learns that she carries a Bible with her. The closing credits include images of that Bible burning as we see the words of Luke 18:16 in large-print, King James English: "Suffer the little children ..." Esther prays silently before a meal, inspiring little Max to imitate her. Esther's supposed piety, however, is merely a cover for her cruel intentions.
Kate reads a book with Max that's been written to help a child deal with the death of a sister. Kate reads a line that says, "My little sister went to heaven." Max asks if baby Jessica is an angel, and Mom replies, "Yes, a beautiful angel"—a sentimental, if theologically inaccurate statement.
The family has erected a shrine of sorts to Jessica that includes a plaque and a flourishing rose bush. Kate tells Esther that they scattered some of Jessica's ashes in the soil, saying, "As long as this plant grows, then part of her will be alive inside it."
Kate initiates a sexual encounter with her husband under the bed covers that implies oral sex. The couple is interrupted when Esther and Max show up scared during a thunderstorm. John and Kate have sex in the kitchen in an explicit scene. (We see sexual movements, and both are partially unclothed.) They're quite engaged when they realize Esther is watching. Kate later tries tentatively to explain how married couples express affection when Esther shockingly blurts, "I know: They f---."
Camera shots show Kate in a bra, putting on pants and in a braless pajama top. Daniel and several friends look at pornographic magazines stashed in his tree house. Pictures of topless women are visible, and Daniel lavishes praise on his favorite. Elsewhere, a neighbor wearing a cleavage-baring shirt hits on John.
[Spoiler Warning] In a truly creepy scene, Esther tries to seduce John. She cuts up one of Kate's dresses and puts on Lolita-like makeup. It's implied that she grabs John's crotch—which, appropriately, horrifies him. Spliced throughout this scene is another in which Kate learns the bizarre truth about Esther: She's actually a psychotic, 33-year-old woman with a "rare hormone disorder" and a form of "proportional dwarfism" that, combined, result in her looking perpetually like a little girl. Illustrating Esther's twisted, sexually motivated ruse are hidden drawings in her room that picture John and Esther naked in a provocative embrace.
The movie opens with a nightmare in which a very pregnant Kate is wheeled into the delivery room as blood cascades onto the floor. A few seconds later, we see a dead infant covered in blood.
That scene aside, the first half of the film is more suspenseful than vicious. Once Esther's malevolent intent becomes clear, though, the violence ratchets up. She pushes a girl off a slide, and we hear a sickening crunch when she hits the ground. She sets Daniel's tree house on fire with him trapped in it. He falls several stories in his escape attempt; when that doesn't kill him, Esther tries to finish the job by smothering him with a pillow in the hospital.
Two characters are savagely murdered, one with a claw hammer and another with a knife. In both cases, Esther strikes her victim seven or eight times to bloody effect. She hides one of these murder weapons in Max's backpack and suggests that Max (who witnesses both murders) will go to jail if she tattles. Especially wince-inducing is a scheme in which Esther frames Kate for supposedly abusing her. To make it look as if Kate broke her arm, Esther puts it in a vice and tightens the crank until the bone snaps visibly and audibly under the skin.
Esther pushes Max in front of a car (which misses her). And in one of the movie's most disturbing scenes, Esther removes all the bullets from a revolver except one, spins the chamber, then puts the barrel to poor little Max's head—as if they're going to play Russian roulette. She removes the gun, saying, "We'll play later."
When Esther suspects Daniel knows what's happening, she puts a box cutter to his neck and then his crotch and threatens to emasculate him (in crude, explicit language) if he says anything. Beneath all of her "nice" paintings, Esther creates hidden, macabre drawings of murder that can only be seen under a black light.
Kate slaps Esther when she suspects Esther has tried to kill one of her children. That incident (for which Kate is restrained and sedated) foreshadows the pair's final showdown, which involves gunshots, stabbings, falling through glass, a kick to the face and a plunge through ice.
Daniel casually shoots a pigeon with a paintball gun. The bird is wounded but still alive, so Esther finishes the job—bloodily—with a brick.
Crude or Profane Language
Ten f-words and just as many misuses of God's name. Jesus' name is taken in vain three times. There's one s-word and a crude reference to the male anatomy. Daniel and others label Esther a "retard," "freak" and "total spaz."
Drug and Alcohol Content
Kate is a recovering alcoholic who tries to resist the urge to drink, but breaks down and buys two bottles of wine when the tension mounts. (She pours one down the drain.) Her drinking, we're told, resulted in her being unaware when Max slipped through broken ice and almost died. It also played a role in her losing a job and in the affair she had. John, too, turns to alcohol in a moment of desperation, drinking an entire bottle of wine quickly and getting drunk. Two scenes picture him smoking. A nun smokes as well.
Kate is shown taking prescription medicine to help her sleep.
Other Negative Elements
Esther is devilishly manipulative, especially in the way she draws Max into her violence and uses the horrible things Max has seen to intimidate her into silence.
If you want a pithy summary of Orphan, here it is: Normal family adopts evil girl. Mayhem and murder ensue.
From Children of the Corn to The Omen, wicked, possessed or deranged kids are common in horror movies. In fact, they're downright trite these days. So an otherwise obscure thriller like this one should come and go without much notice. Except, in this case, the important subject of adoption is the controversial hinge on which the narrative pivots.
Early promotional spots featured Esther saying, "It must be hard to love an adopted child as much as your own." But as outrage from virtually every adoption agency in America has mounted, Warner Bros. backed off to a more generic tagline: "There's something wrong with Esther."
That, however, hasn't kept adoption advocates from continuing to voice deep concern about the film's potentially negative influence. Orphans Deserve Better says, "However farfetched some stories are, they can still subtly shape our values and perceptions." Kelly Rosati, senior director for Focus on the Family's orphan care initiative, adds, "Orphan reinforces false and negative stereotypes about orphan children and adoption. With more than 127,000 kids in U.S. foster care awaiting adoption, many of whom have endured all-too-real abuse and neglect, the last thing they need is to be the subject of a film that uses violence for entertainment value."
Likewise, a coalition of 11 other adoption and foster care groups echoed similar concerns in a letter to Warner Bros. CEO Barry Meyer. "We are concerned that ... this film will have the unintended effect of skewing public opinion against children awaiting families in both the United States and abroad," it read, while noting that the film may exacerbate "unconscious fears of potential foster and adoptive families that orphaned children are psychotic and unable to heal from the wounds of abuse, neglect and abandonment."
Indeed it may. What else is supposed to go through your mind when a 9-year-old orphan puts a revolver to a preschooler's head? Or a nun gets bludgeoned to death with a hammer? Or a drunk father is crudely propositioned by his adoptive daughter?
Orphans everywhere deserve much better than what this messed-up movie gives them.