clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

‘The Woman in the Window’ Should Never Have Seen the Light of Day

Trying to unpack what happened to Joe Wright’s troubled production of a controversial novel on its way to Netflix

Scott Laven/Netflix

In The Woman in the Window, Amy Adams plays a shut-in who is also a film buff. Every night, she swirls dark red wine in a thin-stemmed glass and falls asleep beneath glowing big-screen projections of classic thrillers from the 1940s and ’50s, babbling along to dialogue she knows by heart. Early on in the film, the camera tracks around a corner and catches a glimpse of Jimmy Stewart dangling precipitously from a ledge in Rear Window, simultaneously signaling the movie’s aspirations to greatness and underlining how short it falls. When Brian De Palma paid intelligent, self-conscious homage to Alfred Hitchcock in movies like Dressed to Kill and Body Double, he was derided by critics as a rip-off artist. Who knows what those same critics would say about Joe Wright’s work here, which suggests a destitute man’s De Palma, or maybe what it would look like if De Palma had really been slumming it all those years: a potentially juicy movie sucked dry of satirical sophistication or subversive purpose.

This is not to say that Wright is untalented. Take 2011’s semi-beguiling action-sci-fi hybrid Hanna, for example. The filmmaker took a standard-issue child-assassin story line—a teenage Bourne Identity—and coded it as a millennial fairy tale, complete with Cate Blanchett as a wicked-stepmother type emerging during the film’s amusement-park climax from the mouth of a gigantic, fiberglass wolf. (It is quite an image.) Wright’s refusal to just phone things in is admirable, and what makes The Woman in the Window watchable—at least for a while—is the tension between the rote-ness of the material and the striving aestheticism of Wright’s visual sensibility: all florid, Eyes Wide Shut–style backlighting, restless, prowling cinematography, and angles that play up the gorgeous, unsettling architecture of Adams’s character’s towering New York brownstone, with its intricate network of spiral staircases and vertiginously deep drop into a forbidding cement basement.

The visual gamesmanship of The Woman in the Window is relentless, and at times the baroque theatricality of the presentation works the way it’s supposed to, conveying the confusion of a woman caught between a drab, depressive reality and a hallucinatory fantasy life, unsure which is worse. But as hard as Wright works, he can’t come up with anything as strange or destabilizing as the behind-the-scenes narrative that led to his film being delayed, reshot, and shunted off to a streaming premiere via Netflix—a trajectory that was not the original plan.

The Woman in the Window is based on a best-selling, pseudonymous novel by the notorious fabulist Daniel Mallory, whose history of lies, delusions, and borderline plagiaristic writing practices was outlined in a phenomenal 2019 New Yorker profile by Ian Parker—an investigative piece that reads like a thriller. In it, Parker juxtaposed Mallory’s use of an unreliable narrator in his debut against the author’s debunked, real-life claims of his parents’ tragic deaths (research revealed that they were alive and well) and undergoing surgery for a cancerous brain tumor (which he did not have). “Dissembling seemed the easier path,” Mallory wrote in response to the article that went so far as to compare him to Patricia Highsmith’s duplicitous psychopath Tom Ripley—a character Mallory had falsely claimed to have written a dissertation on at Oxford.

Suffice it to say that a movie about a promising young novelist lying his way to the top of the publishing industry is potentially richer than yet another variation on the archetype of the middle-aged woman whose mind is playing tricks on her. Currently, Jake Gyllenhaal is slated to play Mallory in an upcoming Netflix series that promises to split the difference between Nightcrawler and Shattered Glass. (Sounds good, actually.) In the meantime, though, The Woman in the Window arrives as damaged goods, its ending reportedly rewritten by Tony Gilroy after a series of disastrous test screenings.

The scenario of a high-profile genre movie left for dead in the wake of an inter-studio merger and the onset of COVID-19 recalls the story behind The Empty Man, but there isn’t likely to be a cult around The Woman in the Window. The question instead is whether its glossy pile-up of big stars, ridiculous twists, and hand-me-down Hitchcock-isms are enough to qualify it as enjoyably kitschy middlebrow-slasher trash, or if it just falls short of so-bad-it’s-good status—if it’s just bad enough to be bad.

At this point, it’s worth asking whether Amy Adams knows the difference, or cares. The Woman in the Window completes an unofficial trilogy with Hillbilly Elegy and the HBO miniseries Sharp Objects in which the actress—whose past brilliance is undeniable—has striven almost fetishistically to give her characters rough, jagged edges. They’re the kinds of “transformational” roles that attract awards attention—or that’s the idea, anyway. (The Oscars didn’t bite on her hillbilly act.)

Here, her Anna Fox is a child psychologist on professional leave while she sorts through some undefined trauma of her own. Wright opens purposefully on a shot of his star’s puffy, bloodshot eye (shades of Janet Leigh’s posthumous close-up in Psycho, for those playing Wright’s game and keeping score). From her eyes on down, Anna is a wreck, and Adams’s performance lands somewhere between the condescending Appalachian karaoke of Hillbilly Elegy and the kamikaze charisma of her role in Sharp Objects, where she was guided by director Jean-Marc Vallee toward a surprisingly credible portrait of self-destruction. The gimmick of her character pathologically carving words into her own flesh only partially accounted for the ways the actress managed to get under our skin.

Back when Mallory was giving interviews about something other than being a serial liar, he claimed that Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl inspired him to write his own book, but The Woman in the Window doesn’t move like one of Flynn’s thrillers. It’s locked in place, like a one-act play—an exercise in nervous tension and claustrophobia. And it isn’t funny, either, another deficiency that distances it from De Palma as well as Hitchcock, with their twin signature grins. It does, however, boast that irresistibly (and derivatively) Hitchcockian hook of a crime witnessed surreptitiously at a distance by a nosy protagonist—the voyeur imperiled by her own peeping. After entertaining her new across-the-street neighbor Jane (Julianne Moore) during an impromptu, boozy get-together, Anna watches through her window in horror as Jane’s husband, Alistair (Gary Oldman), stabs his wife in the stomach. Anna calls 9-1-1, but the cops don’t believe her story—first because of her wobbly, disheveled condition, and then more definitively when Alistair comes over with a woman he claims to be Jane in tow.

The second Jane is played by Jennifer Jason Leigh, maybe the greatest American actress of her generation, although a case for that title could also be made for Moore. So how does The Woman in the Window manage to waste both of these icons so badly (Leigh doesn’t get two consecutive lines of dialogue), not to mention Oldman? After directing the actor to an Oscar as Winston Churchill in Darkest Hour, Wright lets Oldman sleepwalk skillfully through a stock sinister-asshole performance bereft of hidden depths. Everything Oldman does here is on the surface, and it’s emblematic of what’s wrong with the movie as a whole. What a story like The Woman in the Window needs in order to work is a genuine sense of ambiguity about what’s going on: the mutation of the everyday into something baffling and phantasmagorical, like in David Fincher’s film version of Gone Girl.

The downside of Wright’s brazen stylization is that the movie has nowhere to go once it’s underway; it’s hard to build anything when your starting point is already over the top. And it doesn’t help that once the script begins showing its hand, the cards it’s holding—as well as the ones stashed up its sleeve—are lousy. Without spoiling the screenplay’s biggest surprise, it’s enough to say that in a movie where so many talented actors seem to be bored, the one member of the supporting cast giving it their all is probably the prime suspect.

To return to Rear Window, the quality that made it fresh and frightening in 1954—and that holds up today, even after that expert and extended Simpsons parody—is that Jimmy Stewart’s voyeurism was so multidirectional. Peering into multiple apartments with his telescope, he could just as easily be seen as a proto-channel-surfer, and the miniature dramas he takes en route to the discovery that his neighbor is a wife killer are suggestive of so many of his own sublimated feelings and desires: for family, for companionship, for sex. Rear Window rarely leaves its hero’s apartment, but its scope feels epic. It vibrates with the possibility that there are secrets out there waiting to be discovered. The Woman in the Window contains its share of beautifully composed frames, but there’s no sense of a reality lying beyond them. If the mark of a great thriller is that it can make you feel trapped—like Rear Window, or The Vanishing, or Parasite—it’s also possible for mediocre ones to hem you in to the point that the final fade-out comes as an act of deliverance. You made it out alive.

Adam Nayman is a film critic, teacher, and author based in Toronto; his book The Coen Brothers: This Book Really Ties the Films Together is available now from Abrams.