Orphan: First Kill — the nutty, enjoyable prequel to 2009’s Orphan — begins and ends with bloodbaths. As is only fair. In the 2009 movie, an orphaned girl named Esther (played by Isabelle Fuhrman) is taken in by a family that doesn’t know (yet) that she is in fact a 30-year-old escaped criminal from Estonia, not the 9-year-old they thought she was. Esther’s said to be afflicted with hypopituitarism, a hormone disorder that stunts her growth. But that’s not why she kills people; it doesn’t explain being a stabby psychopath in the body of a mere playground bully. “She uses her affliction as much as she suffers for it,” says an Estonian doctor in First Kill. The notion seems strange at first glance. Esther? Suffer? This is in fact what First Kill has set out to prove.
Orphan was all a big joke — that was the fun. No one deserves to die. But maybe a character willing to believe that a child could have that face — that fully-grown face with its knowing, deviant eyes — has it coming, just a little, if only for being so stupid. That’s what made Fuhrmann’s turn as Esther so grimly apt the first time around. Esther was all smoke and mirrors, but with the strings showing: body doubles and similar manipulations to account for her size, but no million-dollar de-aging, no overdone makeup meant to genuinely trick us. It was the fact that she looked like a woman in her 30s that made her such an effective creep — and the idea that anyone would believe otherwise said more about them than about her. The fun was in pretending to go along with it, pretending to be shocked when the other shoe dropped, if only because you knew bloodshed would follow. As is Esther’s way.
First Kill knows that, like the first movie, it has to have a twist. It obviously knows that it cannot be the same twist, even as, in other ways, these movies are winkingly similar. Another day, another family of victims. First Kill takes us back to an event we heard about last time — Esther’s escape from an Estonian mental hospital — and lets us in on how she became “Esther” in the first place. That isn’t her name, but rather the name of the girl she pretends to be: a girl from Darien, Connecticut who’s been missing for four years, and whose convenient absence is Esther’s gain. Some of the usual hijinks ensue, the rigmarole of tense questions about whether the family will find out, and how, and what Esther’s going to do about it. Suffice to say that Esther, and not only this family, has no idea what they’re getting into.
Julia Stiles and Rossif Sutherland play Tricia and Allen Albright, respectively, the parents of the young Connecticut girl who’s gone missing. Matthew Finlan plays their son, Gunnar. This is an unhappy family. Tricia and Allen barely have sex anymore. In a way, Esther — with her sexual jealousies and the whole fake identity bit — is the most interesting thing that could have happened to them. The stretches between First Kill’s bloodier scenes are a little boring, for this reason, because these are boring people — they are somehow made even less interesting by their grief. Even Fuhrmann, playing up her role as a manipulative little beast, can’t make some of these scenes work. Things fare far better when they’re going off the rails.
It’s funny to think of this new chapter, with all its mean twists and its tense character convolution, as a prelude to the story we already know. Orphan is the longer movie, but compared to First Kill, it’s a psychologically slim, unmessy affair in comparison. It’s as if Esther, venturing out to destroy her next family, has learned from certain mistakes. First Kill is about the mistakes. The pleasure of watching Esther out of her league is its own satisfaction, even given the dullness otherwise — and even given the promise that some mistakes are bound to be repeated.