The Woman in the Window is wholeheartedly the kind of movie that strives to be Hitchcockian, and likely will be mislabeled as such by many. But the resemblances are cosmetic at best; it’s a movie less interested in reproducing Hitch’s mastery of suspense than in repurposing his most famous twists and tropes, bombarding you with strenuously clever parallels to Vertigo and Psycho. Busily directed by Joe Wright and adapted from the controversial 2018 bestseller of the same title, The Woman in the Window is most obviously indebted to Rear Window, cheekily updating that Hitchcock classic for an era of smartphones and antidepressants. The shut-in turned amateur sleuth here is Dr. Anna Fox (Amy Adams), a child psychologist waiting out a severe case of agoraphobia in her multi-story New York brownstone. Anna has a husband (Anthony Mackie) and a young daughter (Mariah Bozeman) who no longer live with her, though we do hear them on the phone and see them in flashbacks. For company she has only her cat; a basement tenant, David (Wyatt Russell); and a therapist (Tracy Letts, who also wrote the script) who occasionally pops in.
Anna spends a good chunk of her time with her movie collection, which she rewatches obsessively, and of course also includes plenty of meta-warnings to the audience. But soon she’s distracted by an alternate source of entertainment, as a much more dangerous kind of thriller begins playing out in the house across the street, where the Russells, a family of three, have just moved in. The first Russell she meets is fifteen-year-old Ethan (Fred Hechinger), who comes over for a visit and immediately gives off awkward-sensitive Norman Bates vibes. Fittingly, his mother (Julianne Moore) is the next one to stop by, and like Ethan, she seems friendly if slightly off at first. There’s something particularly dodgy yet revealing about the way she describes Ethan’s over-controlling father, Alistair (Gary Oldman), as if she were trying to both confess and suppress a guilty secret.
That something sinister is afoot becomes mightily clear when Anna peers out her window one night and sees a ghastly murder being committed in the Russells’ home. But is she really seeing what she thinks she is? The abundance of unsubtle off-her-rocker imagery suggests otherwise. Once Anna screams bloody murder and the police (Brian Tyree Henry and Jeanine Serralles) arrive, their toughest questions are directed not at Alistair, but rather at Anna’s increasingly fragile grip on reality. This surprises Anna but will surprise no one else, given her general dishevelment, increasingly rattled behavior and alarming habit of mixing wine with prescription meds. Such concoctions morph Anna into being a classic unreliable narrator. In fact, she might also be an unwitting (and more sympathetic) stand-in for her scandal-ridden creator, Dan Mallory, who wrote the novel The Woman in the Window under the pseudonym A.J. Finn and whose history of lies about both his personal and professional life were revealed in 2019. That’s a lot of baggage for any movie to carry, even one that’s been sitting around as long as this one, seeing that this movie was delayed first for ending-changing reshoots and again by the COVID-19 pandemic. Given the circumstances, the postponements may have been a blessing. Because finding yourself thinking about literary controversies during the movie isn’t exactly a good sign.
Really, the most interesting thing here may be the collection of so many talented people in service of a misfire that probably seemed like an intuitive showcase of their talents. In the scripts he’s adapted from his own plays (Bug and Killer Joe), Letts has demonstrated his deftness for staging psychological breakdowns in close quarters. And Wright, in his own previous literary adaptations, has proven admirably willing to treat the camera as an active participant in the telling, using the formal resources of cinema to liberate his stories as much as possible from the printed page. And the results have at times worked. Yet here Wright’s brazen stylization forces the movie from having nowhere to go once it’s underway; it’s hard to build anything when your starting point is already over the top. And it doesn’t help that once the script begins showing its hand, the cards it’s holding — as well as the ones stashed up its sleeve — are lousy.
The most fascinating aspect of the production may be Anna’s ramshackle house itself, whose dimly lit, sparsely furnished spaces become a sort of artificial playground for Bruno Delbonnel’s camera to wander. Here, as he did with his vivid Anna Karenina, Wright has brought blatant theatrical staging and deep-focus widescreen images to create an almost Brechtian detachment, as if to suggest that Anna is caught up in the theater of her life. That’s an intriguing conceit. It also has the effect of draining any real suspense or tension from the material and keeping Anna’s demons entirely on the surface. That’s a shame, given how effortlessly deep Adams when she’s given the space to do so. Here, Adams tries, as always, to make intelligent choices, to underplay the severity and avoid the obvious. She works against the freneticism of the filmmaking, emphasizing Anna’s moments of groundedness and rationality as well as the instinctive empathy that likely made her a good psychologist to begin with. In a perfect world she should be the centerpiece of a great and genuinely Hitchcockian thriller. Yet this is far from spellbinding. In the end, The Woman in the Window is a glossy pile-up of big stars and ridiculously lousy twists; a work that’s cumbersomely overstuffed and floridly preposterous.
The Woman in the Window is available to stream on Netflix