Kate (Vera Farmiga) and John Coleman (Peter Sarsgaard) are experiencing strains in their marriage after Kate's third child - "Jessica" - was stillborn. The loss is particularly hard on Kate, who is still recovering from a drinking habit that cost her her job. As a coping mechanism she has scattered Jessica's ashes in their garden around a white rose bush, with a plaque to remember her by.They adopt Esther (Isabelle Fuhrman), a 9-year-old Russian girl they had met, from the local orphanage. While Kate and John's deaf-mute daughter Max (Aryana Engineer) embraces Esther almost immediately, their son Daniel (Jimmy Bennett) is less welcoming.
Kate grows suspicious when Esther, who watched Kate and John have sex, expresses far more knowledge of sex and its slang than would be expected for a child her age. Not long after Esther arrives, she pushes a schoolmate down a playground slide, who had picked on her, breaking her ankle. Max saw Esther shove the girl, but covers for Esther by saying that the girl "slipped". However, she is further alarmed when Sister Abigail (CCH Pounder), the head of the orphanage, warns her and John about Esther's tendency to be around when things go wrong. Esther overhears this and later kills Sister Abigail with a hammer to the head. She convinces Max (puts a gun to her head) to help her hide the body and the hammer. Daniel sees Esther and Max descending from his treehouse from behind a rock, not knowing they hid the hammer there. Later that night, Esther threatens to cut off Daniel's "hairless little prick before he knows what its used for" if he tells anyone what he saw.
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