One of the few things on which pianist Kate Coleman (Vera Farmiga) agrees with her apathetic architect husband, John Coleman (Peter Saarsgard), is that a drastic change is needed to save their rocky marriage. With the burden of John's past infidelity, the emotional distance of their rebellious adolescent son, Daniel (Jimmy Bennett), and the helplessness of their deaf younger daughter, Max (Aryana Engineer), Kate's loss of her third baby in childbirth broke her sanity and drowned her in a sea of alcoholism.In an attempt to find an alternative outlet of love meant for their stillborn child, the Colemans take in a mysterious 9-year-old Russian orphan called Esther (Isabelle Fuhrman) into their family. Max, in her innocence, was ecstatic to finally have a big sister; Daniel was less than enthusiastic due to the bullying he receives at school due to her eccentricities.Polite and creative, Esther initially had a sensitivity and charm that began to thaw the frozen hearts of the Coleman couple... and that's when people around them started getting hurt.
Adult Fear: Nonstop, but particularly the scene where Esther pulls the emergency brake on the car with Max in it and lets it slide down the hill.
Ditto John. Perhaps not an asshole in the traditional sense, but his insistence on believing Esther's word over his freaking wife and his willful ignorance of evidence staring him in the face loses him a lot of sympathy.
Executive Meddling: In the original script, Danny was supposed to die and Esther's backstory was supposed to be better explained, making her more sympathetic and her actions of pretending to be a child to seduce John make more sense.
Extreme Melee Revenge: Esther attempts to seduce John. When he turns her down, she stabs him with a kitchen knife and does not stop until well after he's dead.
Kick the Dog: Esther cutting the flowers that Kate and John's stillborn child's ashes were scattered over and presenting them to the former in a bouquet.
Esther reading excerpts from Kate's diary (regarding her miscarriage) out loud.
Kick the Son of a Bitch: On Esther's first day of school, a girl named Brenda makes fun of her. Later, Esther comes up behind Brenda and shoves her off the slide, breaking her ankle.
Kids Are Cruel: The girls who bully Esther at school, and Danny and his friends.
Logo Joke: The Warner Bros. shield and the Dark Castle, uhhh, castle are covered in glow paint to foreshadow Esther's secret layer of her paintings showing her sadistic side. Dark Castle is also missing the roaring gargoyle head from which the logo usually zooms out of; here, it zooms out of a castle wall.
Mirror Scare: Both subverted and played straight. The first time Kate goes to the medicine cabinet, she closes the door to find nothing, the second time it's John standing behind her in a fake scare.
Real Life Writes the Plot: The movie was supposed to take place in the fall, but a record snow fall hitting the filming location during filming changed this to the winter, in turn eliminating a scene in the script at a Halloween carnival at Danny and Esther's school. Some might say the winter atmosphere helped make the movie more creepy.
Too Dumb to Live: Sure, the first few results of Esther's psychopathy could be chalked up to coincidence. But John still refuses to believe Kate after Danny's treehouse mysteriously burns down, putting him in the hospital. When Esther just HAPPENED to be near it at the time. Must've been spontaneous combustion, right?
Kate earns some of this for not thinking to call the cops sooner, especially as she is fairly quick to realize that there is something wrong with Esther. Why on earth would she even let her come to the hospital?
Kate comes off this way a lot, she doesn't handle her paranoia against Esther rationally and comes off whiny and demanding. Possibly justified a little due to her emotional instability.
Your Cheating Heart: Ten years before the film's events, John cheated on Kate, although he didn't tell her until many years later.
John: Let me get this straight: We can talk about my mistakes, but not yours?
Kate: I was sick! You're an asshole who wanted to fuck somebody else!
Tropes that concern Esther (or better said, Leena Klammer)