The Woman in the Window, a new Netflix-by-way-of-Disney-via-Fox thriller, could be the ignominious ending of an accidental trilogy formed by Gone Girl and two more adaptations of bestselling mystery novels that followed Gillian Flynn’s juggernaut: The Girl on the Train, a Tate Taylor movie starring Emily Blunt; and now the much-delayed Window, a Joe Wright movie starring Amy Adams. They’re all movies starring immensely talented actresses who could convincing play sisters (and in the case of Adams and Blunt, actually have), and though they’ve been adapted from contemporary fiction, they’re also throwbacks, of a sort: Starry, R-rated thrillers that depend on character and plot more than special effects. Trash for adults, in other words. No wonder Woman in the Window wound up on Netflix—that’s where grown-up movies go to surf the algorithm these days, right?
But as much as Window recalls an earlier era of studio movie, it’s also shockingly ineffective at tapping into that nostalgia. The closest reference point for this kind of adult-oriented, star-driven potboiler is probably the erotic thrillers of the ’90s, where up-and-coming actresses had inadvisable trysts with Michael Douglas, and occasionally other actors. Woman in the Window doesn’t have much sex on its mind as it burrows into the paranoid world of Anna Fox (Amy Adams), an agoraphobic Manhattanite who talks to her absent husband (Anthony Mackie) and spies on her neighbors (including Gary Oldman). Imagine Rear Window without the soothing influence of Grace Kelly. There are also hints of Vertigo and other classic Hollywood thrillers; Anna falls asleep, medicated and sometimes drunk, to her DVD collection. Otto Preminger’s Laura, among others, gets actual screen time.
With its protagonist drunk on movies (and also alcohol and pills), Woman in the Window takes its place alongside earlier, less star-driven erotic thrillers, specifically Hitchcock-riffing Brian De Palma films, like Dressed to Kill or Body Double. Or at least it should. Director Joe Wright has made some near-insufferably prestigious British pictures, for better (Atonement) and worse (Darkest Hour), but he’s repeatedly proven himself a strong stylist. In fact, the knock against some of his more serious projects is that he employs show-offy camera tricks—like that Atonement beach tracking shot—for their own sake, not in a virtuosic syncing of style and substance. Hanna, the teen-assassin thriller from 2011, is one of his most satisfying movies because it’s unmoored from awards-season pomp. Wright doing self-aware riffs on old thriller tropes—The nosy neighbor! The doppelganger! Doubting one’s own eyes!—seems like a slam dunk. He has a worthy lead in Adams, who despite her timeless lovability plays Anna not just as a nerve-jangled heroine but genuinely prickly.
There are moments where Woman in the Window threatens to come alive with style to match the talents of both Adams and Wright. Shots of Adams in close-up, askew, with the image from another movie looming over her in the background. The initial depictions of Anna’s window view in tableaux, very much recalling the Hitchcock classic. The fact that one of Anna’s mysterious neighbors is named Jane Russell, like the 1950s Hollywood sex symbol. There’s a heightened reality lurking below much of the movie’s surface that’s never allowed to fully break through. Instead, the movie eventually works itself into a soapy lather—maybe sort of theatrical, in spots, but never as symphonic or bonkers as a De Palma freakout. It’s missing the dark humor and joy of presentation, those suspense sequences executed with a straight face that still invite laughter at their pure showmanship and bravado.
Maybe the source material can be blamed for this. (I haven’t read the novel, nor have I read The Girl on the Train, which was made into a similarly well-acted but drab cinematic exercise.) But I wonder if it might be those very same erotic (or erotic-adjacent) thrillers from the late ‘80s and ‘90s, at least subconsciously. Movies like Sea of Love, Sleeping with the Enemy, or even, somehow, William Friedkin’s Jade all play like material that could have been vastly improved by hiring someone like De Palma to direct it; in his absence, they’re a bit more grounded, sometimes even taking wobbly aim at genuine social issues. They’re too credulous about their supposed substance, and often neglectful of their visual style. That’s not to say that De Palma’s thrillers are all a jape, or devoid of thematic resonance; Blow Out still packs a wallop. But at their best, they ascend into a movie-addled bliss.
Anna Fox seems headed in that direction when she passes out in front of her movie collection. Wright seems too haunted by respectability to follow her there. Instead, he’s made a movie that’s tediously convinced that it can say something about psychology, therapy and, yikes, grief. Despite some elegant flourishes and a few moments of sweaty intensity, his movie plays like a boilerplate erotic thriller with the sex edited out. All that’s left is the stuff that doesn’t make much sense—the stuff that De Palma or Hitchcock (or Park Chan-wook, or Paul Verhoeven) could elevate into deranged poetry. The Woman in the Window is a depressing reminder of how many filmmakers are content to work in prose.
Jesse Hassenger writes about movies and other pop-culture stuff for a bunch of outlets including The A.V. Club, Polygon, The Week, NME, and SportsAlcohol.com, where he also has a podcast. Following @rockmarooned on Twitter is a great way to find out about what he’s watching, listening to, or eating.