The Front Row
Review: “The Woman in the Window” Is Junk with Visual Verve
Joe Wright’s adaptation of the best-selling book is a run-of-the-mill whodunnit with a persuasive vision of psychological chaos.
By Richard Brody
May 17, 2021
Amy Adams’s performance, of an already discombobulated consciousness in a state of terror, falls just short of campy.Photograph by Melinda Sue Gordon / Courtesy Netflix
There are not-great movies that are enjoyable enough—ones that offer an enticing energy of hectic extremes, a sense of extravagant experience that tweaks blandly familiar movie modes, that at least seem like a departure from the usual run of cinematic conventions. Oddly enough, a filmmaker whose earlier movies I’ve previously found nearly devoid of inspiration, Joe Wright (“Hanna,” “Atonement”), has offered one such film, “The Woman in the Window,” which is out now on Netflix. Its script is junk—but junk brought to the screen with verve. The movie, which stars Amy Adams as a hard-drinking agoraphobe who believes that she’s witnessed a murder from the window of her Harlem town house, is cut off from any wider significance and, for that matter, from the milieu in which it’s implausibly set. It falls apart, into literalism and insignificance, an hour in, exactly when a big plot reveal turns the film into a run-of-the-mill whodunnit. For the first hour, however—while a batch of tenuously linked story elements are being lined up like dominoes—the film proves to be surprisingly, idiosyncratically invigorating.
The movie is based on a best-selling novel by A. J. Finn, the pseudonym of Dan Mallory (whose habit of spinning fictions in life as well as in print, as chronicled in Ian Parker’s New YorkerProfile, would make a good movie in itself). Adams is Anna Fox, a children’s psychologist who hasn’t left her house in ten months. She lives separately from her husband (Anthony Mackie) and their young daughter (Mariah Bozeman), and she refuses visitors, except for her psychiatrist, Karl (played by Tracy Letts, who also wrote the script—more about that later), who comes to her home for their sessions.
Anna fills her days with movies, Hitchcock especially, and she soon falls into a “Rear Window”-like situation of her own. Peeping into the brownstone across the street, she notices a new family moving in: a couple, the Russells, and their teen-age son (Fred Hechinger). Soon, the boy’s mother, Jane (Julianne Moore), comes over and befriends her. A few days later, Anna looks out her window and witnesses Jane being stabbed in the Russell home; when Anna calls the police, they and others in her orbit—including the tenant who lives in her basement (Wyatt Russell)—appear to be gaslighting her in cahoots with Jane’s husband, Alistair (Gary Oldman) and with another woman (Jennifer Jason Leigh), who introduces herself as Jane and appears very much alive.
The movie discloses little of Anna’s past, nothing of her wider range of social connections. (Indeed, it artificially empties her life of friends and extended family.) Her sessions with Karl are truncated, and they reach into her past and her inner life only insofar as those things are narrowly relevant to the plot at hand. The orientations of the brownstones in the film seem somewhat geographically accurate, but the movie contains no specifics of Harlem or of the city at large. Its script proceeds merely to set up its reveals, which has the effect of shunting the dramatic weight of the movie to its rushed and facile ending. The movie’s setup is dominated by Anna’s mental disturbance—her anxiety is amplified by the combination of alcohol and her many medications, pushing her to the edge of delusion.
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Anna’s mental state is the one element that comes through with imaginative vigor. The ambiguities of her experience, the doubt as to whether her own perceptions or the people around her are untrustworthy, give rise to the movie’s unusual aesthetic. Wright films Anna through her own windows, reflected in their panes, through the slats of their blinds, over the bannister and through the uprights of her staircase, confined in the doorframe leading to her basement, under the umbrella that’s her support to overcome agoraphobia, in fragmented closeups, and in disproportionately long distances indoors at home. Her very sense of identity is refracted, diffused, shattered; overwhelmed by the angles and ornaments of her surroundings, overburdened by the demands of her shut-in reduction of a life, she shrinks into impotence.
There’s a remarkable sequence half an hour in, when Anna, drinking herself into oblivion while taking an online French lesson, grows distracted by a ticking clock and dangles her head off the edge of her sofa. The camera swirls down to her from a disorienting overhead gaze, leading to another disorienting view of her head upside-down. She takes her medicine, gazes out the window at the Russells’ three stories of windows, talks to her cat, is disturbed by a dripping faucet, falls asleep watching one movie on TV and wakes up in the middle of another, which converges with a nightmare. Jolted into a panic, she is searching her house desperately for her cell phone when she witnesses the murder of Jane (peering through the viewfinder of a camera, with its telephoto lens, in a nod to “Rear Window”). When Anna finally gets hold of her phone and calls 911, her face is seen through her own window, mottled with the pattern of the lace curtains that partly shroud her face. Witnessing yet more gory scenes in her neighbor’s home, she then takes matters into her own hands and swirls down her staircase (seen in swift and tilting images) in an attempt to overcome her agoraphobia and save a life.
As corny and clichéd as the action is, the images render it persuasively and chillingly. Adams’s performance of an already discombobulated consciousness in a state of terror falls just short of campy, and Wright concocts a frenzied image repertory (with the cinematography of Bruno Delbonnel) to incarnate her state of mind. Casting off caution, he rises to the demands of conveying the character’s subjective extremes. The result comes off as a hectically earnest effort to convey, through visuals, the abstract experience of a tormenting inner chaos. (The effectiveness of his images owes much to their rapid and rhythmically incisive editing, by Valerio Bonelli.) I wonder whether the film in its final form is a tamped-down version of what Wright envisioned: the movie was completed and originally scheduled for release in 2019, but underwent rewrites (by Tony Gilroy, who’s uncredited) and reshoots after test audiences reportedly found it too confusing.
Wright’s filmography includes literary adaptations (“Pride & Prejudice,” “Anna Karenina,” “Atonement”) and historical dramas (“Darkest Hour”). Perhaps he needed a potboiler such as “The Woman in the Window” to let his directorial imagination loose. Many notable films of the past, including in Hollywood, have involved highly expressive moments hung on flimsy scripts that serve as mere racks for the directors’ displays. Of course, the best movies offer more—“The Woman in the Window” doesn’t merit comparison to such accomplished Hollywood movies of subjective extremes as Nicholas Ray’s “Bigger Than Life,” Ida Lupino’s “Not Wanted,” or, for that matter, Martin Scorsese’s “Shutter Island,” all of which possess a sense of character and of theme as strong as their expressive evocation. But Wright’s film serves as a corrective to the all too common approach to moviemaking which prioritizes the script-bound parsing of character traits over the composition of audiovisual experience. “The Woman in the Window” is like a musical with memorable show tunes adorning a thudding book; Wright’s images are, in effect, cinematic music that, if not comprehensively original, is at least excitingly expressive. Transmitting what happens in a script or what a character does isn’t the endgame of the movies but the starting point—and compared to the invigorating mediocrity of “The Woman in the Window,” many far more acclaimed movies never even get going.
Richard Brody began writing for The New Yorker in 1999. He writes about movies in his blog, The Front Row. He is the author of “Everything Is Cinema: The Working Life of Jean-Luc Godard.”
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