VOD film review: Orphan: First Kill
Fuhrman playing older and younger8
Baroque, bonkers third act8
Allegory of polarised America8
Anton Bitel | On 19, Sep 2022
Director: William Brent Bell
Cast: Isabelle Fuhrman, Julia Stiles, Rossif Sutherland, Hiro Kanagawa, Matthew Finlan
Jaume Collet-Serra’s Orphan (2009) told the story of a bourgeois family adopting nine-year-old Esther Albright (Isabelle Fuhrman) in an attempt to fill the chasm of grief left by a stillbirth, only to discover that they had let into their already fraught household someone who was not at all what she seemed. It was a tense, rather baroque thriller with an all-timer of a third act. It also presented itself as an entirely self-contained domestic saga – so that the emergence, some 13 years later, of William Brent Bell’s follow-up, Orphan: First Kill, is as surprising as it seems belated.
Warning: If you have not seen the 2009 film, you may wish to stop reading now.
Orphan: First Kill is a prequel rather than a sequel, even if, contrary to the title, the orphan at its centre has long been a killer before we meet her in a high-security Estonian asylum. This is the story of how Leena Klammer, a 31-year-old con artist and killer whose proportional dwarfism makes her resemble a 10-year-old girl, goes on to become Esther Albright. To bridge that narrative gap, though, she must enact a bold and bloody escape from the Saarne Instituute, and impersonate the young American, Esther, who she learns from the internet has been missing, and to whom she bears a passing resemblance. She must also infiltrate the well-to-do Albright family, convincing the socialite mother Tricia (Julia Stiles), the artist father Allen (Rossif Sutherland) and teen brother Gunnar (Matthew Finlan) that she is their long-lost Esther, resurfacing at last after having been improbably abducted by a stranger to Eastern Europe four years earlier.
Time and age operate mysteriously here. It is not just that Orphan: First Kill is set two years earlier than the original Orphan and made 13 years later, but also that Fuhrman, now 13 years older, is playing an even younger Leena/Esther, albeit one who, as an essential part of the plot, looks several decades younger than she actually is. Bell uses every trick in the book – false perspectives, intercutting between characters, child actors viewed from behind, as well as no doubt some less in-camera compositing and digital effects – to maintain the illusion that Fuhrman looks 10, even as her character tries to carry off a similar masquerade of youthful innocence with her more immediate audience. Accordingly, the first half of the film plays off as a modern version of Daniel Vigne’s The Return of Martin Guerre, with an impostor being embraced by a family which, for various reasons, wants and needs to believe that she is who she says she is – even as child therapist Dr Segar (Samantha Walkes) and police detective Donnan (Hiro Kanagawa) are more sceptical.
“Nothing is ever one thing, right?” says Allan, showing Esther the “hidden layer” in his paintings that is only visible under ultraviolet lights. Of the Albrights, sensitive artist Allan was the most deeply affected by Esther’s long, unexplained absence, to the extent that he had stopped working altogether and become emotionally withdrawn from his wife and son. Now with little Esther’s return, Allan has come back to life, and is overjoyed to discover that in the four years that she has been gone, she has acquired an aptitude for drawing and painting akin to daddy’s – and Allan’s revitalisation is good for the integrity of the whole family. So even if Tricia has real doubts about Esther, she is content to buy into, and go along with, the deception. After all, nothing is ever one thing, and Leena is not alone in having a hidden layer.
“This is America,” Gunnar (sharing his forename with the actor who played Leatherface in Tobe Hooper’s Texas Chain Saw Massacre) says at at one point. Sure enough, the tensions and secrets laid bare in the Albright family also expose the divisions of class and race, of privilege and privation, of entitlement and exclusion, that polarise the America of today – and also of 2007, the year when the film is set and when the rapid development in predatory financial products for marginalised minorities led to a housing bubble that put entire financial dynasties into collapse along with it.
Coming from nothing but full of ambition, Leena may be keen to jump the queue and to get a foothold in the US domestic market, and she may dream the American dream of wealth and comfort and a loving, secure home (no matter how much her accent will always mark her as an outsider), but the relationship of mutual exploitation that evolves between her and the Albrights, and the impossible tensions that this engenders, will prove a destructive powder keg that brings the whole house down, inevitably leaving her an Orphan. Meanwhile, the Albrights, who can trace their own origins back to the Mayflower and who have long since become part of the American establishment, are doomed, for all their own self-preserving malice, to be outdone by a not-so-young pretender.