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Amy Adams, playing agoraphobic child psychologist Anna Fox, absent-mindedly speaks the lines to the black and white film she is watching on her television. This could almost serve as a sufficient summary of Joe Wright’s sub-Hitchcockian psychological thriller. Based on a novel by A.J. Finn, The Woman in the Window took three years to reach even the small screen of Netflix distribution. Test audiences were reportedly left confused by the film. Despite reshoots aimed at smoothing rough edges, the result remains an uninspired slog.
If there was any confusion about what Wright wanted to accomplish here, it is quickly dispelled. Within the opening two minutes, images from Rear Window are played frame-by-frame as the camera glides through an introduction to our setting. The dream sequence from Spellbound is later imposed over a somnolent Anna, in what is admittedly an attractive shot. There are a few such inspired shots, though the lighting is so low throughout the film – Anna prefers dim light – that I couldn’t help but be more drawn to the films Wright invokes in the background.
On Halloween night, Anna is visited by a woman she takes to be Jane Russell (Julianne Moore), the mother of the family newly moved in across the street. Anna comments on Jane’s earrings, a gift from an ex-boyfriend, and they talk about Ethan (Fred Hechinger), Jane’s son who we met earlier when he delivered a gift to Anna. Each of these Russells cut an odd figure. While Jane is irrepressibly kooky, Ethan appears visibly distraught. Anna, employing her professional skills, gets Ethan to open up enough to hint at some underlying fear of his father. This sets her upon a thread of interest in the Russell family which pulls the plot forward.
Anna’s soundness of mind is constantly put into question. Early in the film, her course of medication is changed. These new pills are not to be mixed with alcohol. All the same, Anna is seldom far from a glass of red wine. After mistakenly phoning the cops one night when David (Wyatt Russell), the tenant who rents her basement, wakes her in search of a box cutter, Anna’s sense of outside threat begins to constrict. The danger only grows after Anna witnesses the violent death of Jane at the hands of an unseen assailant. In case we are not quite getting it, this sequence plays out through the telephoto lens of Anna’s camera. To say much else about what goes on would be to give away the red herrings and twists that make up the machinery of psychological thrillers.
The cast will largely dictate how willing you are to buy into a set-up like this. Unfortunately, this is one of the places in which the film most obviously fails. Amy Adams, generally impeccable, doesn’t seem very convinced about the character she is meant to portray. Her performance, simply put, is lifeless. Gary Oldman, as Alistair Russell, should cut a sinister figure, but comes across as rather desperate and bored. Brian Tyree Henry, who plays a sympathetic detective, deserves credit for appearing comfortable enough to actually play his role. The film could get away with a lot more if this stellar cast were put to better use. Even Jennifer Jason Leigh is given little to do besides stand there as indelible proof that her character is a piece of the puzzle.
Anna’s unreliability as a protagonist should be what makes this film compelling. On top of her anxiety and pills, we bear witness to a flashback by way of hallucination (a side effect of her medication, the sympathetic detective informs her) in which we are caught up regarding what happened to her absent family. What the hallucination reveals is evidently a memory Anna otherwise attempted to suppress. This all happens as she hurls a series of accusations regarding what she witnessed through her telephoto lens.
The effect here should be to call into question the reality of what she witnessed. She is later informed that the confusion arose not from a distorted sense of reality, but rather something of a case of mistaken identity. Pieces of the puzzle were kept from view or else mistakenly identified. As the sympathetic detective informs her at film’s end: “You were right about everything you saw.” What’s left, then, is a rote murder mystery. Rather than casting doubt over the images seen from Anna’s perspective, Wright hides his killer behind a wall. As such, the viewer is subject to the same obstruction as Anna. Her unreliability is another red herring. Once that has been peeled away, we are left with a character whose personal conflict is irrelevant to how the film wraps itself up.
That sense of constriction Anna is shown to feel, that the outside is a threat crushing inwards, is diffused without fanfare well before the killer is revealed. The twist might remind you of another Hitchcock picture, though any Oedipal compulsion here is merely nodded at before a formulaic chase into a grisly struggle to the end. Before the credits roll, we are treated to a short coda showing Anna braving the outside world as she enters a cab and rides off into the dusk. If the filmmakers had any sense, they would have sent this film packing with her.