In a sense, director Joe Wright’s The Woman in the Window is a haunted house movie. Child therapist and severe agoraphobe Anna Fox (Amy Adams) haunts the halls of her sprawling Manhattan brownstone, eternally tethered to an empty space that was once filled with warm family memories. After separating from her husband Ed (Anthony Mackie) and losing custody of their daughter, Anna clings to her New York home as the last vestige of domestic bliss—in complete denial over the profound trauma that also remains deeply rooted in the abode.
When new neighbors move in across the street, Anna’s only passing comment is that the white Russell family might signal a rise in gentrification (as if Anna isn’t a single white lady living in a huge brownstone in Harlem, but okay). A few days later, Ethan (Fred Hechinger), the quirky son of the new neighbors, hand-delivers a small gift to Anna on behalf of his mother. She is caught off-guard by this relative stranger in her precious home, but quickly warms up to the kid, going so far as to send him home with a handful of DVDs from her personal collection. The next night, Anna is saved from a melodramatically intense egging incident on Halloween by Jane Russell (Julianne Moore), who quickly befriends Anna with her frank honesty. “Oh, man,” she says. “I’d hate to be stuck in a house this shitty.” Just when it seems as if Anna might be turning a corner when it comes to forging new personal connections, this façade instantly cracks when—while watching the street from her living room window—Anna peers into the Russells’ bedroom window only to see Jane being stabbed and killed by her husband Alistair (Gary Oldman).
Anna swears that she knows what she saw, but is entirely written off by local detectives for her lack of evidence. Also, doesn’t her medication produce hallucinations as a side effect? And she really shouldn’t be drinking while taking it, either. It’s clear from this early juncture that Anna’s perspective might not be one based in reality; yet when the occasional shred of evidence supporting her original claim surfaces, it’s hard to dismiss her entirely.
Based on the novel of the same name by A.J. Finn, The Woman in the Window is undeniably indebted to similar cinematic and literary touchstones, ranging from Alfred Hitchcock’s Rear Window (itself an adaptation of the short story “It Had to Be Murder”) to the 1995 thriller Copycat. In fact, Finn was criticized for not only the overt similarities between his novel and Sarah A. Denzil’s earlier novel, Saving April, but also Copycat itself—which also features a protagonist who suffers from extreme agoraphobia—with the author never giving proper attribution to the film and his publisher waving away the novels’ similarities.
While the plot and its twisting turns often produce legitimate thrills, Wright’s The Woman in the Window is far more concerned with varnish over vision. The ever-shifting parameters of the plot aim to produce a genuinely shocking finale, but ultimately succumb to passionless predictability. The initial gut feeling that the source material itself is far too lackluster lingers above all, particularly when the film’s direction, cinematography and set design evoke relative imagination. Whether this disconnect is due to Tracy Letts’ script or the overt familiarity (to be generous) of Finn’s novel remains unclear.
But Wright appears to be right at home in such a stylistically slick film, with the ornate pre-war home serving as a winding historical set piece. With Wright’s previous forte appearing to be in lush period dramas (Pride and Prejudice, Atonement, Anna Karenina), the director is well-versed in making dimly lit interiors breathe life and texture. Wright’s careful eye for framing, staging and movement throughout the brownstone surely salvages it from appearing to be a flat, dingy space—even the dust bunnies are placed with utmost intention. Huge props are also in order for cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel, who plays with a sense of sinister magical realism that adds to the psychological terror underscoring the visual motif of the film. One such scene, involving an entire SUV and isolated snowfall appearing smack-dab in Anna’s living room, is akin to the richly surreal cinematography of Lukasz Zal in Charlie Kaufman’s I’m Thinking of Ending Things.
As always, Adams’ performance gives the impression of being both effortless and intricately layered, easily overshadowing costars like Oldman in a way that doesn’t feel undermining (though who would honestly protest if it were?). In contrast, the talent of Jennifer Jason Leigh (who plays a confounding Jane Russell doppelganger) can’t help but seem wasted on the film, her character never afforded any sort of fleshing out or general presence. Moore’s initial Jane Russell is riveting alongside Adams in the one loaded scene they share together, perhaps the only actor whose on-screen presence is as enthralling as Adams’ study of an anxious, agoraphobic woman.
The Woman in the Window succeeds when it comes to constructing an adequate cinematic language to tell the story of its original source material, but tends to overcompensate for its narrative shortcomings. Whether through strained reshoots, years-long theatrical pushbacks or its eventual unceremonious acquisition and release by Netflix, The Woman in the Window was perhaps always destined to the same forgettable, disposable fate as the paperback airport novel it’s based on.
Director: Joe Wright
Writer: Tracy Letts, A.J. Finn (novel)
Stars: Amy Adams, Julianne Moore, Gary Oldman, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Anthony Mackie, Fred Hechinger, Wyatt Russell, Brian Tyree Henry
Release Date: May 14, 2021 (Netflix)
Natalia Keogan is a Queens-based writer who covers film, music and culture, with particular interest in the horror genre and depictions of sexuality and gender. You can read her work in Narratively, Filmmaker Magazine and Paste, and find her on Twitter.