This is the part of the job I hate. Sometimes I am duty bound to relate the sad news that a hotly anticipated (by me, anyway) movie is a catastrophic disappointment. I am referring, I’m afraid, to The Woman in the Window (Netflix, May 14), a supposedly literary thriller that stars a whole bunch of good actors doing bad things. The film, directed by Joe Wright (though at least partially overhauled by Tony Gilroy after poor test screenings), is an unmitigated disaster, not even capable of camp appeal.
Maybe it was always going to be this way. The film is based on the very popular novel by A.J. Finn, the nom de plume of Daniel Mallory, a coldly calculating author with a, uh, colorful past that was chronicled at length in The New Yorker. His novel was engineered to tap into the domestic thriller genre boom begun with Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl and carried on in numerous other yarns, like The Girl on the Train. Mallory’s book was a copy of a copy (of a copy, of a copy), and any attempt to turn that into prestige filmed entertainment—the way David Fincher and Flynn did with their captivating Gone Girl adaptation—may have been inevitably doomed. It was a weak foundation to build anything upon.
And yet, I hoped. Oh how I hoped, fervently enough that I looked past any quibbles I might have with some of Wright’s oeuvre—stylish but fussy films like Atonement and Anna Karenina—and focused on the sterling cast: Amy Adams, Julianne Moore, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Brian Tyree Henry, and more. Tracy Letts wrote the first draft of the screenplay! The film’s deep pedigree gave it a promise that endured amid news of a troubled production, myriad delays, and the grim implications of 20th Century unloading the film onto Netflix.
Even if it was bad, it could still be fun: a glorious, feverish, trashy mess about Amy Adams going mad in a Manhattan mansion, surrounded by wine bottles. That would be a nice alternative to the relentless parade of franchise films, a grownup, if slightly tawdry, thriller like they used to make in the 1990s.
But, alas, the movie is a pallid, dull slog of bad acting and worse storytelling. Adams plays an agoraphobic doctor, Anna Fox, who spends her days taking meds, drinking copious amounts of wine, and staring out the window of her Harlem townhouse. She becomes increasingly fixated on the goings-on of her new across-the-street neighbors, having enjoyed a boozy night of bonding with Julianne Moore’s Jane Russell, and then believing she’s seen her murdered. Anna’s mind swirls and reality warps, Wright plunging us into a schematic, grueling psychological mystery.
The story is a muddle, clunkily paced and building toward an entirely unearned (and uninteresting) twist reveal. The goal here was to evoke, among other films, the Hitchcock classic Rear Window, but Wright can’t muster any of that film’s claustrophobic tension. He’s too busy drenching everything in garish color and letting his camera admire Anna’s stately home. No matter what the film looked like, though, I suspect it couldn’t escape the muck of Mallory’s narrative. It’s both pretentious and programmatic, built in predictable beats and offering no new spin on any of its hoary forms. Formulaic genre movies can be lots of fun, but not when they’re as ponderous and self-serious as The Woman in the Window.
Just about every member of the cast succumbs to the movie’s dreadful gravity. It’s bleak watching Adams like this, and so soon after her woeful turn in Hillbilly Elegy. Only Moore and Henry, in a bland detective role that he graciously gives dimension, manage memorable work. Moore is barely in the movie, but she fills it with electricity in her one big scene, breezing in to offer a tease of a wilder, livelier film and then, quite tragically, disappearing.
In that way, I can relate to Anna Fox. It’s hard not to obsess at least a little bit over whatever energy Moore is grooving on, and then go chasing after its ghost while everything around you collapses into ruin. There’s nothing else in The Woman in the Window worth caring about. It’s a boondoggle we probably should have seen coming. But maybe we can all be forgiven for some desperate magical thinking during our long time of confinement, gazing outside and looking for something, anything, that might make life a bit more exciting.
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