‘The Woman in the Window’ Sets up an Intriguing Mystery That Settles for Odd Resolutions
If it were more inspired, “The Woman in the Window” would have been quite the thriller to check out as we emerge from pandemic lockdowns. Based on the bestseller by A.J. Finn, it tells the story of a woman who is agoraphobic and seems to descend into a web of paranoia while staying locked away in her apartment. As it stands this is a hasty, hazy thriller that never justifies itself. Then again, this latest from director Joe Wright is finally arriving on Netflix after quite the ordeal. Its original release date was October 2019, but was delayed after studio execs decided it needed re-edits after some poor test audience screenings. May 2020 was the next planned release date and then Covid-19 struck, delaying everything further. Now acquired by Netflix, “The Woman in the Window” can be streamed to be carefully pondered and yawned at.
Staring out her window is Anna Fox (Amy Adams), a New York child psychologist who lives alone, separated from her husband, and feeling agoraphobic. Anna’s daily routine consists of downing medication, glass of wine in hand, and jumping whenever someone rings the doorbell. Her one tenant, David (Wyatt Russell), grows increasingly annoyed with Anna’s strange moods and the way she seems to snoop around the basement where he lives. When new neighbors move in across the street into a plush apartment, the Russells, Anna meets their somewhat introverted son Ethan (Fred Hechinger). Then Mrs. Russell, Jane (Julianne Moore), drops by for an awkward conversation about motherhood. Mr. Russell, Alistair (Gary Oldman), a serious corporate type, also shows up, deceptively friendly. It all takes a sudden, dark turn when Anna believes she’s seen something murderous go on through her window over at the Russell home.
The basic structure of “The Woman in the Window” is a classic thriller toolbox made famous by Alfred Hitchcock’s “Rear Window.” It’s very tricky to pull off and Wright comes close in a few scenes. Wright is typically a director of elegant dramas, including the great “Atonement,” an enduringly engaging “Pride & Prejudice,” and 2017’s “Darkest Hour,” featuring Gary Oldman in his Oscar-winning role as Winston Churchill. When he works outside of his comfort zone the director nails it or completely misses, as seen in his brilliant episode for “Black Mirror,” “Nosedive,” and in his ill-fated Peter Pan reimagining, “Pan.” This one falls somewhere into a bland middle ground. Wright’s visual style is present, with cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel delivering crisp, softly-lit wide images. The casting is strong as well with Amy Adams becoming a manic disaster onscreen and Gary Oldman playing a cold, overbearing father to a sheltered Ethan.
Yet as a thriller “The Woman in the Window” simply never builds up enough tension or intrigue. Essential to this kind of story is keeping the audience on its toes, but for most of the first and second acts, the narrative feels sleepy. We spend a good deal of time with Anna terrified of every scratch and sound in her apartment, with jump scares that prove to be farcical, like neighborhood kids who egg her front door on Halloween. Other moments that should envelop us in a web of deception feel too staged, like bad theater. In a scene where two detectives, played by Brian Tyree Henry and Jeanine Serralles, visit Anna, major characters like Alistair and Ethan conveniently appear out of nowhere in the room as if queued. Instead of doing more with the angle of spying through the window, the plot gives Anna the easy tool of her laptop, where she does research on Alistair that does little in the long run of the story. The whole angle of the odd tenant, David, played with some gusto by Wyatt Russell (son of Kurt Russell and Goldie Hawn), also becomes an easy throwaway. It turns out David has violated his parole over a bar fight, and a mysterious hookup who spends the night later turns into one of the movie’s most absurd plot twists.
The entire last 10 minutes of the movie become a tsunami of ludicrous plot twists involving the killer and a showdown on a rain-drenched rooftop where Wright tries to go for shock value. You can’t have a rehashed thriller without some standard, cliché shots of people getting stabbed, Anna slipping on a bloody floor and someone taking a rake to the face. There’s much better drama in the brief four minutes where we learn why Anna is agoraphobic and a heartbreaking truth about her husband and daughter, who we never see during the film except for one tragic flashback. But that dramatic moment is rendered meaningless by the completely absurd climax where the killer’s motivations are reduced to, “this guy slept with my mother.” For Wright it’s an exercise that shows he still knows where to place the camera, but the mystery sets up an enigma where the answers might only inspire shock in how funny they turn out to be.
“The Woman in the Window” begins streaming May 14 on Netflix.