Culture Trips

The Woman in the Window review – broken thriller is barely worth a look | Amy Adams

The makers of the sub-Hitchcockian thriller The Woman in the Window would have you believe that its central mystery has to do with the hows, whys and whos of a grisly Manhattan murder. But any grim fascination we might have with finding out how it all ends is attached less to the twists and turns of the story and more to the mess that surrounds it, like staring at the wreckage of a car accident not to see who was injured but to gawp at how destroyed the vehicle is.

It was a talk-of-the-town package – a starry cast attached to the adaptation of a blockbuster book with an acclaimed film-maker and a Tony-winning playwright bringing it to life. Yet it has all the hallmarks of a classic cursed production – disastrous test screenings, frantic reshoots, a second writer brought in late, a swirling controversy, a frantic Netflix sale. Ultimately what happened off screen has become far more interesting than what’s finally being dumped in front of us. The novel it was based on, by AJ Finn, was part of the post-Gone Girl boom in domestic thrillers centred on fractured female protagonists, and after David Fincher’s adaptation became a smash, Fox hoped for a repeat success, nabbing the rights with speed. Joe Wright, director of Atonement and Darkest Hour, came onboard to add some flair, along with Tracy Letts in charge of adapting the book, and a stacked cast including Letts himself, Amy Adams, Gary Oldman, Julianne Moore, Anthony Mackie, Brian Tyree Henry and Jennifer Jason Leigh. How could it possibly go wrong?

But when filming wrapped back in 2018, test audiences were unimpressed and the disgraced producer Scott Rudin (see, cursed) hired the professional fixer Tony Gilroy (who also came on late to help Rogue One) to handle reshoots. Things didn’t improve, release dates weren’t met, Finn (whose real name is Dan Mallory) was the subject of a wild New Yorker expose alleging a range of sociopathic behaviours and once the pandemic hit, Fox offloaded its damaged wares to Netflix, where it now limps its way on to your smartphone. It’s a fraction away from being a total one-for-the-books disaster (there are brief, bittersweet glimpses of what it could have been, especially in the first act) but it’s as ungainly as one would expect given its backstory, better as a cautionary tale than an actual movie.

The woman is Anna (Adams), a child psychologist, and the window is in gentrified Harlem. She’s an agoraphobe, living off a diet of red wine, antidepressants and old movies, distanced from her husband (Mackie) and daughter, who no longer live with her, and obsessed with the lives of those she can see from her brownstone. When the Russells move in across the street, she diverts her attention to their troubles, played out in their living room for all to see. One night, arguments turn into something more extreme as Anna sees the matriarch (Moore) murdered. But when the police arrive so does Mr Russell (Oldman), who brings his wife (Leigh) along with him, very much alive and very much not who Anna thought she was.

Woman in the Window (2021), L to R: Amy Adams as Anna Fox and Julianne Moore as Jane
Photograph: Melinda Sue Gordon/Netflix Inc.

The initial scenes, while flawed and already telling of the problems that eventually weigh the film down, are effective in small bursts. The setup is derivative but intriguing and while some of Wright’s touches are overbearing from the outset, it’s slickly assembled (its premiere on Netflix ultimately helps the film look that much better in comparison with the majority of their originals) and Anna’s extravagant, artfully messy home makes for an appealingly dramatic location. But the cracks soon turn into chasms – as Anna’s world starts to descend into chaos, so does the film. It becomes clear that no one, from Wright directing to Letts adapting to Gilroy fixing to Adams acting, is confident or even in agreement about what it is that they’re actually doing and what tone the material requires. We’re firmly in airport potboiler territory, with a going-through-the-motions mystery patchworked from superior sources, but the high-end treatment it’s given suggests there’s something more than soulless mechanics at its centre (spoiler: there isn’t).

Anna is as thinly sketched by Letts (and probably Gilroy) as she is flatly acted by Adams, another off-key performance from an actor still weathering the horror of last year’s heinous Hillbilly Elegy. She leans into screechy histrionics, as does a wincingly hammy Oldman (a scene of the pair trying to loudly overact over each other is one of the film’s many low points), and what stings is that arguably her greatest work to date was in Sharp Objects, playing another tortured addict in another adaptation of a hit thriller, a turn so accomplished it’s hard to believe we’re now watching the same person. Here she’s unable to lift material that sorely needs a star turn to make it work (see Emily Blunt’s strenuous carrying of The Girl on the Train a few years back) and instead, it’s two small roles that stick out. In just one scene, Moore is electric, hinting at depths absent from most of the script while her son, the relative newcomer Fred Hechinger, has an awkward natural charm that feels more rooted to a reality that much of the film is untethered from.

Even if the prestige trappings were stripped away, even if this were told in a more fittingly lurid, or at least less affected way (Wright’s one strange giallo touch is embarrassingly misjudged), the actual mystery that Anna has to unfold is surprisingly pedestrian. The first major twist is made so blindingly obvious from the very beginning that it’s close to an insult that Wright reveals it as if we don’t already know. And when it’s all laid out, when we finally know who did what and why, it’s such a shrug of an ending that all of the reshoots, the talent and the money are exposed to be a maddening waste of time. Curiosity might bring you here but boredom will drive you away.

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