Joe Wright’s The Woman In The Window is a film that was kicked around a bit before it was eventually released.
Based on the best-selling novel by A.J. Finn, The Woman In The Window was filmed in 2018 and was originally set to be released in October of 2019. At the time, there were many who predicted that this would be the film for which Amy Adams would finally win an Oscar. However, after a few poor test screenings, the release of Woman In The Window was pushed back. The film’s producer, the now-infamous Scott Rudin, reportedly brought in Tony Gilory to re-shoot a few scenes. The film was finally set to be released in May of 2020 and, needless to say, it was no longer expected to be an Oscar contender. Then, the pandemic hit and, like so many movies, The Woman In The Window was left in limbo. With its theatrical release canceled, the film was eventually purchased by Netflix. Netflix finally released it in May of this year. With all of the delays and the bad buzz, the critics had plenty of time to sharpen their knives and I don’t think anyone was surprised when the film got scathing reviews.
Though the film was completed long before the lockdowns, The Woman In The Window does feel like a COVID thriller. Anna Fox (played by Amy Adams) is a child psychologist who is afraid to leave her Manhattan brownstone. She has agoraphobia, the result of a personal trauma. She’s not only scared to leave the safety of her apartment but she’s also terrified of anyone else getting inside. She spends her days spying on the neighbors, drinking wine, and watching old movies. Of course, that’s also what many people in the real world spent most of the past year doing. As I watched Anna freak out over some trick or treaters throwing eggs at her door, I was reminded of my neighbor who, a few months ago, nearly had a panic attack because she saw someone walking past her house without a mask. One could argue that the world itself has become agoraphobic.
Despite her housebound status, Anna does still have a few contacts with the outside world. For instance, a psychiatrist (played by Tracy Letts, who also wrote the script) comes by every weekend. She has a tenant named David (Wyatt Russell) who lives in her basement. She regularly has conversations with her husband and her daughter, who she says are both living in another state. And eventually, she meets Ethan (Fred Hechinger), the 15 year-old who has just moved in across the street. When Anna thinks that she’s witnessed Ethan’s father (Gary Oldman) murdering his mother (Julianne Moore), Anna calls the cops. However, when a totally different woman (Jennifer Jason Leigh) shows up and claims to be Ethan’s mother, Anna is forced to try to solve the mystery herself.
The Woman In The Window is a disjointed and rather messy film but I’d be lying if I said that I didn’t enjoy it. The novel (which I also greatly enjoyed) was told entirely from Anna’s point of view, which means that we saw everything through the eyes of a sometimes unreliable narrator. The novel did such a good job of putting us inside of Anna’s head that it didn’t matter that the story itself was full of improbable coincidences. Director Joe Wright tries to recreate the novel’s uneasiness through garish lighting, crooked camera angles, and abrupt jump cuts. Sometimes, it’s effective (as when Anna tries to leave her apartment in the rain, just to pass out after having a panic attack) and other times, the technique feels a bit too obvious. And then there’s other scenes — like when Anna suddenly sees an overturned car in the middle of her living room — where it becomes brilliantly bizarre. It’s in those scenes, in which the film carefully balances on the line between the surreal and the silly, that Wright seems to be most comfortable as a director. Much as he did with Anna Karenina, Wright fills The Woman In The Window with scenes that suggest that, on some level, the characters are aware that they’re just characters in a B-melodrama.
Indeed, despite being directed by a great filmmaker and featuring a cast of award-winning actors, The Woman In The Window is a B-movie and, when taken on those terms, it’s an entertaining melodrama. Interestingly enough, it actually helps that almost everyone in the film has either been miscast or is too obvious a choice for their role. Gary Oldman is such an on-the-nose choice to play a tyrannical authority figure that it actually makes sense that a film buff like Anna would automatically assume the worst about him. Julianne Moore has even less screen time than Oldman but she makes the most of it, playing yet another one of her talkative characters who doesn’t appear to have the ability to filter her thoughts. It’s the type of role that Moore specializes in and one that she could probably play in her sleep but she and Adams establish a good rapport and the scene that they share is one of the best in the film. Speaking of which, Amy Adams is so incredibly miscast as Anna that you actually find yourself rooting for her to somehow bring the character to life. Amy Adams is one of the few performers who can make being cheerful compelling so it seems like a bit of a waste to cast her as a self-destructive agoraphobe who can’t leave her apartment And yet, much as in Hillbilly Elegy where she was similarly miscast, Adams seems to be trying so hard to make her casting work that you appreciate the effort, even if she doesn’t quite succeed. She’s just so likable that you sympathize with her, even if she isn’t quite right for the role.
(Myself, I pictured Naomi Watts in the role when I read the book.)
As a film, The Woman In The Window shares the book’s flaws. The plot is a bit too heavy on coincidences and we’re asked to believe that Anna, who can’t leave her house without having a panic attack and who is terrified of someone getting into her house without her knowledge, would also invite Ethan to visit her and allow David to live in her basement. As well, it’s hard to watch the movie without wondering which scenes were reshot by Tony Gilroy. (The final scene especially feels out-of-place with what came before it, leading me to suspect that it may have been added in response to those negative test screenings.) But, while the film’s defects are obvious, I still enjoyed it. It may be flawed but it’s hardly the disaster that some have made it out to be.