The source material is a bestseller. The cast is A-list. The director is British and celebrated, the cinematographer is French and aces, and the screenwriter is a Pulitzer-winning playwright. There is, on the surface, no reason to think that The Woman in the Window, the long-anticipated and even-longer-delayed adaptation of A.J. Finn’s 2018 prestige beach read, would not be the sort of movie designed to spike pulses whether you see it in theaters or at home on Netflix, on a plane or on a train, on a boat or with a goat. Which means — if you choose to look at this curiously inoperative take on the book through a wineglass-half-full perspective — that you technically get two mysteries in one with this tale of murder most foul. Did the shut-in across the street really see someone shuffle off this mortal coil, or is she losing her mind? And the second, far more puzzling one, is: How did so much get lost in translation here?
The heroine of this Hitchcock-a-doodle-doo, Anna Fox, is a child psychologist; she is also agoraphobic, which means that she never leaves her exquisitely cluttered, impossibly expansive Harlem brownstone. (Add 50 points for relatability — we, too, have been stuck inside our houses for far too long, and at the risk of our sanity! — then subtract 50 points for real-estate envy.) Anna is married and has an eight-year-old daughter, except her family doesn’t live with her. She and her husband are separated, she says, although they talk every day.
And because she is played by Amy Adams, Anna immediately gains our sympathies even when we can tell there’s something extremely unstable about her. A versatile actress who can go light (Enchanted), dark (Sharp Objects), or any shade in between (take your pick, though we’re apt to single out Junebug and Arrival), Adams has an uncanny knack for bringing a woman-next-door quality to most of her roles. It’s not wholesomeness, per se — you would not call her glam-slam con artist in American Hustle “wholesome” — but a sort of malleable everylady quality that she can temper to fit the mood without losing an audience. You love watching her even when her characters behave badly, or when she’s committed to furiously trying to color inside the lines of a movie that doesn’t do her talents justice. At the very least, you’re invested in this flawed, fucked-up protagonist’s fate from the moment Adams’ recluse reluctantly shuffles out of bed. Watching her play Fox reminds you of the popular industry maxim that directing is 90 percent casting. We’re giving you the good news first.
Anna sees a therapist (screenwriter Tracy Letts, pulling double duty here) once a week, who’s trying to coax her into going outside. Occasionally, she interacts with her shaggy downstairs tenant (Wyatt Russell). Anna fills the rest of her waking hours guzzling her meds with gallons of vino, wobbling around in a sort of pharma-drunk fugue state, and watching old movies. Why yes, she does love Rear Window — funny you should ask, because her main hobby is voyeurism. Specifically, spying on her neighbors, which range from a church group to a trumpet player. There’s no Miss Lonelyhearts to be glimpsed through her front windows, but there are some new tenants, the Russells, who just moved in across the street. Alistair Russell (Gary Oldman) was a bigwig Boston lawyer, and a little chilly. His son, Ethan (Eighth Grade‘s Fred Hechinger), is socially awkward and seems unfamiliar with the concept of boundaries, but when he stops by Anna’s place to drop off a gift from his mom, the child psychologist in her takes pity on him. Especially since the teenager seems to be hinting that things may be a little volatile in the household.
And Mrs. Russell? We meet her when she shows up one night and helps Anna out of a jam. Her name is Jane. She is gregarious, forward, earthy, a little nosy, a little boozy — “I’d hate to be stuck inside a house this shitty,” she quips upon hearing that Anna is agoraphobic. Jane is a complicated woman and thus, a Julianne Moore specialty; see that aforementioned statement about the benefits of good casting. They bond over being moms, and being stuck in what seems like tough, unforgiving circumstances. This is the closest thing to a friend that Anna has had in a while, which is why she freaks out when she later hears what sounds like a woman screaming. It may have come from the Russells’ place. And then, a day later, she witnesses Jane arguing with someone in the apartment across the way — and being stabbed to death.
911 is called. An attempt to help is aborted. When the cops show up, Anna accuses Mr. Russell of killing his wife. That’s nonsense, he tells everyone. You’ve never met my wife. At which point Mrs. Russell steps into the picture, and — given she is not Julianne Moore, but Jennifer Jason Leigh — we have no idea who this highly unreliable narrator has or hasn’t encountered, what she has or hasn’t seen, what’s real or the product of an overactive, highly disturbed imagination.
If you’re among the legion of readers who breathlessly turned the pages of Finn’s novel, you know what’s on deck. If you haven’t, you might wonder whether you’re about to venture in a gaslighting parable, a Vertigo-style setup, another tale of a woman on the verge of a nervous breakdown or something far more sinister. To get into any plot details past this point is to play hopscotch in a minefield. What can be said is that Anthony Mackie and Brian Tyree Henry also show up, and like Oldman and Leigh, they too feel underused here; the film’s tweaked view of motherhood is a rich vein that’s never quite tapped; and you will need to endure an Overlook Hotel-level maze of plot twists and the kind of major suspension of disbelief that can leave permanent palm marks on your face.
You may also want to preemptively take some Dramamine, given director Joe Wright’s penchant for throwing in skewed, Dutch-angled shots to break up the monotony every few minutes. The filmmaker has always had a gift for cracking open literary texts and getting intriguing films out of them, finding a one-size-fits-all method of turning words on a page into sound and vision; even his experimental take on Anna Karenina manages to get enough Tolstoy on the screen that you recognize the book underneath the meta-theatrical flourishes. He’s also not afraid to swing for the fences when it comes to stylizing his storytelling — this is the filmmaker who, with Atonement‘s unbroken five-minute Steadicam shot of Dunkirk’s devastation, proved that there’s a gossamer-thin line between virtuosity and indulgence.
With Window, he throws in a few grand gestures: a hallucinogenic splash of red across the frame here, a snowy car wreck transposed into a living room setting there, a couple of ingenious modern variations on the ol’ split-screen composition. Mostly, however, the playbook consists of “ape Hitchcock,” followed by blank pages. (Though kudos to cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel’s ability to inject menace into every dark corner and Danny Elfman’s Herrmann-for-all-seasons score.) When in doubt, throw in an old movie homage or, better yet, an actual clip of an old movie — Rear Window, sure, but also Laura, Spellbound, the Bogart-Bacall joint Dark Passage. These are all vintage thrillers that deal with idealized females and women in peril, mutable and mistaken identities, psychological deterioration, and the effects of trauma, which pertains directly to what The Woman in the Window is digging into with its tale of unraveling. Its inability to jolt life into this crazed, harebrained narrative, or to even sustain tension for longer than a few scenes, feels like it undermines any sort of goal of being considered in that company. You go in with high expectations about what this collection of talent can do with this batshit pulp fiction. You leave feeling like you owe Brian De Palma a thousand apologies.