Synopsis – An agoraphobic woman living alone in New York begins spying on her new neighbors, only to witness a disturbing act of violence.
My Take – Reeling high on the wave of continuous successes of domestic thrillers particular consisting of unreliable narrators as seen in Gone Girl and The Girl on the Train, upon release, debutante author A.J. Finn’s 2018 novel, The Woman In The Window, was an immediate hit. Though the book wasn’t nearly as spellbinding as one would have expected, it surely did well enough to entertain in the pulpiest way possible, thereby guaranteeing an immediate feature adaption.
With Joe Wright, fresh from the success of Darkest Hour (2017), set to direct, multi-award-winning playwright Tracy Letts set to write (and star), and a star studded attached, it seemed that the film was clearly going to enjoy the similar success seen by both Gone Girl (2014) and The Girl on the Train (2016) feature adaptions. That is until, trouble hit paradise.
Though the film finished filming in 2018, following negative test screenings, its re-shoots took place only in 2019, with a planned 2020 theatrical release, which of course got cancelled due to the still ongoing pandemic. To add further hurt to injury, the author A.J. Finn (aka Dan Mallory) became the subject of an explosive article in The New Yorker accusing him of a variety of deceptions and a questionable of history of truth-telling. Which was quickly followed by allegations regarding the film’s producer Scott Rudin and his appalling behavior with his staff.
Now released on Netflix, promising all the ingredients of a good twisty thriller that focused on a contained setting, had a starry lead in Amy Adams, and ran for an easy-to-devour runtime of 100-minutes. Sadly, this clumsy homage to Hitchcock’s classic thriller Rear Window (1954) somehow ends up feeling more in vein with the rest of Netflix‘s original thriller library, which are usually stitched together by stylish, melodramatic elements and a flimsily plot.
Despite having all the makings of a gripping mystery and the creative team to back it up, the whole does not add up to the sum of its parts, as director Wright and Letts’ translation of the plot to the screen doesn’t work to well, but instead makes the environment and atmosphere far more interesting than any of its human characters.
In simpler terms, it’s best to keep your expectations very low while going into this one.
The story follows Anna Fox (Amy Adams), a child psychologist whose practice has become non-existent due to her persistent case of agoraphobia. With her inability to go outside, she only interacts with people when they come through the main door, like her own psychologist, Dr. Landy (Tracy Letts), and David (Wyatt Russell), who’s renting out her basement apartment. Anna spends most of her time watching her old collection of movies, spying on her neighbors live out their lives while she mixes alcohol with prescription meditation and talks on the phone with her estranged husband Ed (Anthony Mackie) and daughter Olivia (Mariah Bozeman).
However, her life takes an interesting turn when the Russell Family moves into her brownstone across her, and she ends up befriending first their teenage son, Ethan (Fred Hechinger), and then his mother, Jane (Julianne Moore). But soon after, Anna ends up witnessing Jane getting stabbed, forcing her to call the cops (Bryan Tyree Henry and Jeanine Serralles), who present her with a problem. They introduce Mr. Russell (Gary Oldman) and his wife (Jennifer Jason Leigh), a woman who looks nothing like the one she had a delightful evening with.
The film surprisingly works for a while, toeing the line of a suspenseful narrative and has a sprinkle of downright horror. The mystery of what happened to the woman Anna met, and what’s going on in the house across the street, is muddled by Anna’s unreliable narrator syndrome and director Joe Wright uses a few tricks to immerse us in Anna’s warped reality like flashes of mysterious falling snow, blood spatter across the screen, close-ups of Anna’s eyes or a surreal spotlight on her face. The film goes all in on the psychological-thriller inspirations, with scenes from the classic noir films Anna watches melding into memories of a past trauma.
The unreliable narrator trope can be effective if handled in the right manner, but the film bungles this by telegraphing Anna’s fragile mental state and shaky grip on reality much too early. When it is hinted that she might have imagined the whole thing, anyone who has ever seen a thriller are unlikely to be fooled by the films numerous misleads.
The faults of the film are in part unavoidable, because of the faithfulness of the adaptation and the intricacies of its source material. For example, as a character Anna is hostile right from the first scene without any explanation to why. She reads like an over-the-top example of an unlikable female protagonist. Even Anna’s tenant David here, unlike the book, feels like he was dropped in just to become an obvious suspect, rather than a full character. All the plot elements, red herrings, dramatic encounters, and emotional breakdowns that made the novel a bestseller translate to the screen as melodramatic.
Though I didn’t exactly love the final act twist while reading the 2018 book, at least the development up to that moment was solid, well built and most importantly earned. Here, it feels straight up convoluted and un-inventive.
Sure, the third act is enjoyably violent, and I was taken aback by an attack involving a gardening tool. Not by the act itself so much as by who they let it happen to. With so many actors in the film, anyone could be involved, including the protagonist, so there is genuine tension. However, the psychological label this film is given fits any film nowadays where the hero of the story ends up in a finger-pointing contest. The script, like the book, is not as smart as it thinks it is but builds enough tension to be effective.
What’s even sadder is how it wastes its incredible roster. Amy Adams continues to be a commendable lead, and makes the vulnerabilities of her character believable. Anna is very much a frustrating protagonist, but Adams never lets lazy reductions enter her performance. Through the trauma, anger, bewilderment, and fear, she keeps the audience engaged for as long as she’s onscreen. Fred Hechinger is formidable as Ethan, striking a balance between sensitive and guarded.
Wyatt Russell, in particular, gets to have some fun as the shadowy tenant who could know more than he says. Gary Oldman provides yet another over-the-top performance. Anthony Mackie, Julianne Moore and Jennifer Jason Leigh fill their small parts admirably, while Bryan Tyree Henry, Tracy Letts and Jeanine Serralles are wasted. On the whole, ‘The Woman in the Window’ is a mildly watchable thriller which wastes its star-studded cast.
Directed – Joe Wright
Rated – R
Run Time – 100 minutes