“The Woman in the Window,” based on the best-selling book of the same name by A.J. Finn, has seen its release date moved twice. First, due to an early screen test that found the audiences confused. And then, after reshoots were done, delayed again due to the pandemic. Now released on Netflix, the film plays off the paranoia and dark thoughts that may have entered our heads while the world had collectively stayed home, knowing that the outside world was dangerous to us. It’s almost in synch with the film’s plot that centers on Dr. Anna Fox, a child psychologist who suffers from agoraphobia and cannot leave her house. Suffering from anxiety and panic attacks, she views the world outside from the safety of her window until she witnesses a murder in the home of one of her many neighbors whom she constantly watches.
As we enter our second year on lockdown, the film has a synchronicity with our own current situation. Stuck at home with nothing to do but watch movies (which Anna does), talking to family who are far away (which Anna also does), and if we are strict about our health protocols, try to keep our contact with the outside world to a minimum (which Anna does to a certain degree).
Director Joe Wright situates his camera primarily inside Anna’s 3-story house and in her psychosis. She is heavily medicated due to her condition and she is prone to drink, even if she’s not supposed to. The claustrophobic coverage of Anna’s entire life, how confined she is in this space, and the repetitive, almost hallucinatory aspects of her day-to-day — from the drinking and watching old movies, the panic attacks, and her vivid dreams — creates a character that feels unhinged, almost at the point of breaking.
So when neighbors come to visit, first from Ethan, the son of the family that just moved in, to the mother, Jane Russell, who she shares a wonderfully directed moment of drinking and getting-to-know-each-other, we see Anna’s world slowly unraveling. Her doctor tells her that “curiosity of others” can be a sign of her depression subsiding, it becomes sort of like permission for Anna to play voyeur until she witnesses the murder of Jane at her home next door.
Never does Amy Adams, who plays Anna, nor does director Joe Wright and screenwriter Tracy Letts ever let you sympathise with our broken protagonist. When the police don’t believe her, we cannot blame them because even we, the audience, are given enough reason to doubt her. When the accused husband, played by a frightening Gary Oldman, fights back and presents his very much alive wife, Jane Russell, played by Jennifer Jason Leigh (when it was Julianne Moore, who played the very same Jane Russell that Anna shares an evening and few drinks with just a few days before), we know something is up.
Classic films like ‘Rear Window’ and Witness to Murder,’ which have similar plots, make us want to believe in Anna. But ‘The Woman in the Window’ has worked so hard to show us that she’s unreliable. Her nightmares, the loss of time and consciousness. Joe Wright manages to play with our heads, giving us multiple suspects — everyone from Gary Oldman’s character to her tenant living in her basement, David, to Anna herself — the film feels more invested in messing with us than creating a relationship between the character and the audience.
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And so when the twists start to come — and there are several — the payoff is more cerebral than it is emotional. Much like the character is in a daze, the audience is left in the dark with many of the pieces that come together only at the end. In a book, it probably works as the story comes in waves of thoughts but in a film, it feels like a deus ex machina.
The most real and human moment in the film comes when Anna deals with Ethan (played with great vulnerability by Fred Hechinger) and the drink she shares with her first encounter with Jane (played by Julianne Moore). That first meeting with Jane is the work that you’ve come to know of Joe Wright: two humans talking, pushing each other’s boundaries, breaking down their walls, and getting to the meat of each other. Adams and Moore do that scene very well and I was hoping for more of that.
But instead, Wright insists on giving us a thriller with a few jump scares, a relentless musical score that serves to manipulate us rather than lead us to an emotion, and jarring visual style that fits the protagonist’s world view but detracts from our attachment to her.
Had this been released not during the pandemic, and maybe seen in the cinema, ‘The Woman in the Window’ would hit differently. But conditions as they are, I’d rather connect with this character whose current mental state is something I can root for but the film doesn’t help me establish that rapport.