A troubled family adopts the perfect little girl and lives happily ever after...in some other movie. This one ain't it.
Vera Farmiga (Up in the Air, The Departed) gives a strong performance as Kate Coleman, wife to John (Peter Sarsgaard, An Education, Flightplan) and mother to pre-teen Danny (Jimmy Bennett, young James T. Kirk in last summer's Star Trek, Evan Almighty) and the adorable Max (short for Maxine, played by Aryana Engineer making her film debut).
As the story begins Kate is struggling to come to terms with the baby she lost, a stillbirth. She's a recovering alcoholic who hasn't had a drink in a year. She regularly talks to a therapist. John, though, isn't perfect: he's had an extra-marital affair during their troubles.
Kate and John decide to adopt, and they go to an orphanage run by Sister Abigail (CCH Pounder, Avatar, The Shield) where they meet nine year old Esther (Isabelle Fuhrman, Hounddog). A raven-haired girl with impeccable maners, Esther is originally from Russia, and was made an orphan after her home burned down with her family inside. Her only quirk seems to be that she prefers to dress in "old country" little girl-style dresses complete with ribbons on her wrists and neck.
Esther and Max, who is deaf, immediately bond; Esther quickly learns sign language so she can communicate with her new little sister. Danny is put out by her because he gets teased at school for having a weirdo as a sister. Esther is bullied at school by her classmates. So what's an orphan to do?
Well, people who run afoul of Esther get hurt or worse. That's the fun of this movie, a solid thriller with terrific performances all around. We really get to know the Coleman family, especially Kate, who goes from the nightmare of losing a child to having your newly adopted child turn out to be a living nightmare. When Esther starts manipulating events, leaving Kate looking like the bad guy, you really feel for her. I like that Farmiga didn't just "phone in" a performance, like a lot of actors do when they do a genre movie like this; she gave it her all.
This isn't a movie for gore-hounds - thank goodness for that - although a scene with a hammer comes off as pretty gruesome, but that is more in the idea than any actual on-screen depiction of blood-n-guts. The story is set in winter and the snow and ice really add to the feel of dread. The movie does, or perhaps overdoes, the "fake scare" a bit, with the hand-held camera coming up on a person from behind only to reveal on the reverse shot...that there was no danger.
Fuhrman's Russian accent gives Esther that little extra edge of weirdness. Esther is a bit like those famous Russian "nesting dolls" where inside the doll is another doll and another, except what Esther is hiding inside is a pretty fun twist to the story, which I won't spoil here.
Special mention must be made for little Aryana Engineer's turn as the spunky Max. The actress, like her on-screen character, is partially deaf, so Aryana has no spoken lines of dialogue, instead communicating through sign language and a very expressive face. When she is happy, the screen literally lights up and when her movie mommy faces danger at the end of the story, the look of fear and terror on her young face is so real. Kudos to her acting coach, Brenda Campbell.
Truth be told, one thing that bogs the movie down a bit is its length. At 123 minutes, it's simply too long. I know that director Jaume Collett-Serra (the House of Wax remake) and writers David Johnson and Alex Mace went to great lengths for us to get to know Kate and her problems and emotional state, but the movie should have been trimmed by at least 10 minutes, if not 15 to 20 minutes, to make it much, much tighter. Still, it's a good old-fashioned creepy horror-thriller, and that's saying something.