Dir: Joe Wright. Starring: Amy Adams, Gary Oldman, Anthony Mackie, Fred Hechinger, Wyatt Russell, Brian Tyree Henry, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Julianne Moore. 15, 100 mins
The Woman in the Window is what Clueless’s Cher Horowitz would call a “Monet”. To quote, “from far away, it’s OK, but up close it’s a big ol’ mess”. It’s a perfect acquisition for Netflix, in a way, since it looks perfectly respectable sitting on their homepage among their usual mixed bag of thrillers. It hails from a well-respected director, Atonement’s Joe Wright. Its screenplay is by Pulitzer Prize winner Tracy Letts (who also has a small role in the film), adapting a best-selling novel by Daniel Mallory, writing under the pseudonym AJ Finn. And its cast is undoubtedly impressive – Amy Adams, Julianne Moore, Gary Oldman, Anthony Mackie, Brian Tyree Henry, and Jennifer Jason Leigh all star.
That illusion of quality even holds up once the film starts playing. Sure, neither Mallory nor Wright are shy about how openly they’ve cribbed from Alfred Hitchcock’s Rear Window. Adams stars as Anna Fox, an agoraphobic child psychologist whose longing for the outside world manifests as a deep-seated curiosity about her neighbours’s various comings and goings. She watches them nightly, wine in hand – which is bound not to mix well with her daily fistful of medications. Anna even shares a night of gin and probing personal questions with the newbie to her block, Jane Russell (Moore, who delivers her lines with a certain hysteria that could equally indicate garrulousness or mental disturbance).
Then she witnesses Jane’s murder – bloodied knife sticking out of her stomach and all. Local law enforcement is incredulous – so are Jane’s husband (Oldman) and Jane herself, who now looks decidedly less like Moore and a whole lot like Leigh. It’s a somewhat shameless, potboiler premise that is at least intriguing thanks to Wright’s approach. His Hitchcock homage takes a significant detour via the lurid delights of Brian de Palma’s own nods to the legendary director (think 1984’s Body Double or 1980’s Dressed to Kill). A splatter of blood adds a sudden dose of style.
But the look of The Woman in the Window turns out to be a complete red herring. There’s no psychosexual intrigue to Wright’s film, just the charred remains of a project that’s gone to hell and back. After the film fared poorly with test audiences, Tony Gilroy (who famously fixed many of Rogue One’s initial problems) was brought in for uncredited rewrites. It was then left languishing on the shelf when the pandemic hit, only for it to be unceremoniously handed off to Netflix and released online a week before cinemas are due to open. To make matters worse, a 2019 New Yorker article alleged that Mallory was a serial liar who faked a cancer diagnosis and stole much of his book’s plot from the 1995 film Copycat.
That feeling of uncontrolled mess only truly rears its head around the midpoint of Wright’s film, as the Hitchcock allusions devolve into a series of screaming matches and banal revelations. This is a rare misfire performance from Adams, who seems to have failed to find the emotional centre of her character and instead resorts to a somewhat gauche, wide-eyed and stammering parody of the “shut-in, pill-popping, cat lady”, as one character viciously describes her.
Usually, there’s a dash of pleasure to be found in suffering through a terrible thriller, if only to reach whatever batty twist lies at its end. Unfortunately, that isn’t true of The Woman in the Window – its climactic sequence, set on a rooftop, is both ugly to look at and couldn’t possibly induce more than a shrug.