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.
- The Alcoholic / Drowning My Sorrows: Kate, formerly.
- Asshole Victim: The bully who gets her ankle broken.
- And possibly Danny.
- 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.
- Black Dude Dies First: The girl with the broken ankle happens first, but CCH Pounder plays the first fatality.
- Break the Cutie: Poor Max.
- Bring My Brown Pants: Danny, when Esther threatens him with a box cutter.
- Cassandra Truth: In spades. Kate knows Esther is a psychopath, but has no evidence.
- Chekhov's Gun: Several. The revolver, Max's hearing aids, the treehouse key, the second bottle of wine, and, of course, Esther's paintings.
- Children Are Innocent: Max, so much that you'll want to hug her from her very first scene. The same cannot be said for anyone else.
- Conspicuous CG: A lot, but the most noticeable is Eshter's knife in the finale.
- Cute Mute: Adorable little Max.
- Dysfunction Junction: On both the villainous and heroic sides.
- 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.
- Groin Attack: Threatened, but not executed.
Esther: (holding a box cutter between Danny's legs) If I find out that you're lying, I'll cut your hairless little prick off before you even figure out what it's for.
- Horrible Judge of Character: The entire family except Danny, but special mention goes to John.
- Idiot Ball: Having sex in a part of the house that's meant to be used by the entire family. As a result, they get caught by Esther.
- Improbable Aiming Skills: Subverted when Max picks up the revolver that Kate had dropped earlier and aims it at Esther, but ends up shooting the ice they're standing on instead.
- Infant Immortality: Although subverted in an earlier draft of the script in which Esther kills a 7-year-old girl the Colemans had been planning to adopt, and she is found hung in a closet.
- Danny was also supposed to die in the script.
- Irony: Esther's initial plan was to kill Kate, Danny and Max so that she can have John all to herself. Kate and the kids survive to the end of the film, while John gets an incredibly messy death for refusing Esther's advances.
- Jerkass: The boys that Danny hangs out with. But Danny himself is a Jerkass Woobie.
- 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.
- Let's not forget Esther herself once she reveals who she truly is.
- 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.
- Porn Stash: In Danny's treehouse. "Page 43 will change your life." "Hey, that looks like your mom!!"
- Precision F-Strike: Danny: "She's not. My. Fucking. Sister!"
- Primal Scene: But don't worry, Esther understands.
- Punctuated! For! Emphasis!: "I'm not! Your fucking! MOMMY!!"
- 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.
- Replacement Goldfish: A tale of this trope in action, gone horribly, horribly wrong.
- Russian Roulette: "Want to play?"
- Sickbed Slaying: Danny. He survives, though.
- Soundtrack Dissonance: "The Glory of Love" plays over a disturbing, UV paint-splattered credits reel.
- Took a Level in Badass: Max at the end.
- 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)
- Abusive Parents / Parental Incest: Forms part of her backstory, explaining why she is so screwed up, but this wasn't portrayed in the film (it was in the original script).
- Age-Inappropriate Dress
- Ax-Crazy: And hammer crazy.
- Bitch in Sheep's Clothing
- Clingy Jealous Girl: Towards her adoptive father John.
- Creepy Child: Subverted, since she's really thirty three years old. She's still way creepy, though.
- Disney Villain Death
- Drop the Hammer: Uses a claw hammer to murder Sister Abigail.
- Eerie Pale-Skinned Brunette
- Enfante Terrible: Terrible, anyway.
- Every Girl Is Creepier With Hair Decs
- The Fake Cutie: Could be the poster girl for this trope.
- Faux Affably Evil: She can be nice when she wants to be, but it's all just an act.
- Fille Fatale: Or so you think, since you know, she's not a child after all.
- Girlish Pigtails: Several times.
- Heartwarming Orphan: What the Colemans think she is at first...
- Harmful to Minors: "It takes two to drag a body... Max, come and help your sister..."
- Knife Nut
- Love Hungry
- Lzherusskie: Both the actress and the character.
- Mad Artist
- Manipulative Bitch
- Murder the Hypotenuse: All of Esther's actions in this film have in mind the ultimate death of Kate, Danny AND Max so that she can have John all to herself.
- Precision F-Strike: "I know, they fuck."
- Pyro Maniac
- Replacement Goldfish: The Coleman family really should have just gotten a puppy.
- Room Full of Crazy: Look at all those pretty paintings she made! Wait... oh dear God...
- Significant Birth Date: May be unintentional, but according to her records at the mental hospital, she was born on April 20th, thus sharing a birthday with another murderous nutcase.
- Stepford Smiler: Type C.
- The Sociopath: She is very manipulative, able to trick people into thinking she is a nine year old girl instead of an adult dwarf, has no morals, is able to convince people that she's a nice kid when she's really evil, and is willing to kill an entire family to have the husband to herself to satisfy her lust.
- Troubling Unchildlike Behaviour: Casually using the word "fuck" in everyday conversation is the least worrying thing about this young lady.
- A graver example: She tries to seduce John.
- Villainous Breakdown: After failing to seduce John, Esther runs to her room, removes everything she uses to pass herself off as a nine-year-old, while throwing a screaming fit and wrecking the room.
- Wham Line: "Saarne Institute is not an orphanage. It's a mental hospital."
- "The little girl in that picture is not really a little girl. She's a grown woman."
- Wicked Cultured: Esther is a piano virtuoso, is presumably trilingual and is a talented and prolific painter.
- Wise Beyond Their Years: Esther knows far more about sex than a seemingly 9-year-old should ever healthily know.
- Woman in Black: During the finale.
- Wounded Gazelle Gambit: Breaks her own arm in a freaking vise and frames her adoptive mother for it.
- Yandere: Combined with a not entirely healthy dose of Cute and Psycho.
That's the story of, that's the glory of love.