The story behind Joe Wright’s thriller The Woman In The Window is more intriguing then the film itself. The novel it’s based on, a bestseller in 2018, was written by a senior publishing executive with the express purpose of cashing in on the success of Gone Girl, The Girl On The Train, and their ilk; that marketing determined many of the “creative” decisions (including the author’s choice of pseudonym, A.J. Finn) was no secret. Then, in 2019, The New Yorker outed Finn (real name: Dan Mallory) as a serial fabulist who had, at various times, affected a British accent; faked a brain tumor, a cancer diagnosis, and an Oxford Ph.D; and impersonated his brother via e-mail, only to later claim that said brother (still alive) had committed suicide. It also appeared that he had lifted some elements of the book from a 1995 film ironically titled Copycat.
At that point, the film adaptation was already in the digital can. Reshoots—supposedly due to confused reactions at test screenings, but who knows—pushed it back from its original late 2019 release date to early summer 2020. But the pandemic intervened and thus this Rear Window take-off about a depressed, pill-popping agoraphobe who can’t leave her rambling New York brownstone came to be shelved at the exact moment where it might have feigned something akin to timeliness. Wasn’t that all of us about a year ago—stuck indoors, yearning to feel better, convinced that one of our neighbors had committed murder? No? Regardless, it’s here at last, intruding into our homes via Netflix, to be appreciated in its derivative glory.
To be fair, if anyone should be handling material this baldly recycled, it should be a technical showboat like Wright, who takes every opportunity to demonstrate that there is someone punching instructions to tilt and pan into the remotely operated camera head. In the opening moments, he sets the film’s baseline of artistic subtlety by tracking past a dollhouse and a TV that’s playing the climax of Rear Window frame by frame. (Later, it will play a clip of the dream sequence from Spellbound.) Wright wants us to know that he knows what he’s doing; the fact that he didn’t just put his film degree at the start of the movie in the manner of an old British Board Of Film Censors certificate shows impressive restraint.
From there, we meet Anna (Amy Adams), the aforementioned depressed agoraphobe. We learn that she is separated from her husband, Ed (Anthony Mackie); hasn’t left the house in 10 months; and used to be a child psychologist. Most of her contact with the outside world comes by way of occasional phone calls to Ed and scattered interactions with her handy basement tenant, David (Wyatt Russell). Otherwise, she spends her time mixing wine with her meds (with possibly hallucinatory side effects), watching old movies that she has committed to memory, and snooping on the neighbors.
As it happens, a new family, the Russells, has moved across the street, providing fresh material for Anna’s voyeuristic pursuits. The first one she meets face-to-face is Ethan (Fred Hechinger), the teenage son, who comes by to deliver a candle as a present. Ethan’s mom, Jane (Julianne Moore), appears next, coming to Anna’s rescue after a failed attempt to venture outside to shoo off some egg-throwing neighborhood kids. What she lacks in manners she makes up for with the kind of conviviality usually associated with addiction, and the two hit it off over drinks. Alistair (Gary Oldman), the man of the house, is the last to appear unannounced at Anna’s doorstep, seemingly trying to figure out whether his wife has been talking to her. By this point, a picture of the Russells has been formed: a free-spirited wife trapped in a marriage to a jealous, overbearing husband for the sake of the sensitive kid.
With the help of her trusty camera and zoom lens, Anna continues to spy on the drama playing out in the Russells’ dining and living rooms. Under the influence of a serious combination of alcohol and pharmaceuticals, she witnesses what appears to be Jane’s murder. (For whatever reason, she doesn’t think to take a picture.) A couple of incredulous detectives (Brian Tyree Henry and Jeanine Serralles) are called, as are the Russells, who appear with a completely different Jane (Jennifer Jason Leigh). Either our heroine is extremely delusional or there’s a very convoluted cover-up going on.
Watching the overqualified likes of Adams, Moore, Leigh, Henry, Oldman, et al. get tangled up in this gaslighting mystery is, admittedly, one of the pleasures of The Woman In The Window. Given that the script was written by actor-playwright Tracy Letts (who also plays Anna’s therapist), it should come as no surprise that the film works best when it shoots for grotesque black comedy—less an imitation of one of Hitchcock’s stage-bound experiments and more of a digital gloss on Brian De Palma, with some outrageous stylizations (eccentric camera moves, funky lighting) but none of the kinky and obsessive personal material that a De Palma would bring to his own forays into Hitchcockiana. As an exercise in suspense, it’s far less successful.
The problem is not an uncommon one: In order to resolve its plot—and overcome the traumatic backstory that has long been de rigueur for thrillers—The Woman In The Window must become the least interesting version of itself in the third act, complete with a rainy rooftop climax. The truth is that a great many better thrillers have stories that fall apart under close scrutiny, howling gaps in logic, and twists that strain credulity. They are filled with clichés, stereotypes, and formulas. These films sculpt art not out of plot but out of our attraction to the thrill. The most that can be said for The Woman In The Window is that does, in long stretches, look interesting.