It’s always disappointing when a film doesn’t live up to expectations; it’s exponentially worse when that film comes from a filmmaker who is clearly capable of great things on screen. Such is the case with the latest from Joe Wright, a hit-or-miss filmmaker who is very, very good when he’s on (Pride & Prejudice, Atonement, Darkest Hour) and, as with the new thriller The Woman in the Window, very very not good when he’s off. Based on the best-selling novel by A.J. Finn, adapted by Tracy Letts and starring Amy Adams, the film has all the makings of a gripping mystery and the creative team to back it up. The whole does not add up to the sum of its parts, however, as the story of an agoraphobic woman who thinks she witnessed a horrific crime across the street goes so far off the rails you’ll forget entirely where the tracks were to begin with.
Adams is Anna Fox, a woman living alone in a grand old Manhattan brownstone (well, except for her tenant, David (Wyatt Russell), who lives in the basement), usually in pajamas and sulking around the house trying to keep herself busy. In voiceover, we hear her on the phone with her husband, who’s talking her through her days and checking in on her mental health, which is clearly unstable. She can’t leave the house, so her therapist (Letts) visits her for their weekly sessions as they try to work on getting her new medications balanced. Into this rather uneventful daily life come the Russells, new neighbors who move in across the street. They’re an affluent couple and their teenage son, Ethan (Fred Hechinger), stops by Anna’s house with a gift to introduce himself and the new family. A child psychologist by training, though certainly not practicing at the moment, Anna does her best to connect with Ethan and is sure to let him know she’s always there if he needs anything. From across the street, she can see Ethan and his mother in heated arguments with patriarch Alistair (Gary Oldman) who seems to be, as far as she can tell, abusive and aggressive.
Anna also meets Jane Russell, played by Julianne Moore; the two end up spending an evening together drinking wine and laughing, likely the first time Anna’s been so social in a long time. This newfound bond with her new neighbors makes what happens next all the more shocking to her, as she sees Jane brutally attacked in her home, though the perpetrator is conveniently hidden in the space between the windows Anna can see into. Thus begins a chaotic and confusing whirlwind into Anna’s psyche as she tries her best to report what she’s seen and advocate for Ethan’s safety even as the facts seem to contradict her testimony and the reality of her own circumstances becomes clear to her new neighbors and the audience. Finn’s book surely benefits from this sort of Gone Girl-esque slow reveal, the truth of the situation ultimately differing wildly from what we’re led to believe from the beginning. But with so many moving pieces here to shoehorn into Anna’s story, the second act reveals and third act resolutions not only strain credulity, they’re so poorly written (which, like Wright’s filmmaking, pains me to say about Letts) they become nearly hilarious in their execution.
Adams does her best to channel all of Anna’s trauma into the film’s most pivotal moments, including the flashback that explains where her husband, Ed (Anthony Mackie) is during this harrowing turn of events, and she manages the heightened emotions admirably. It’s when she’s forced to become something like a B-movie scream queen towards the film’s final moments that one shifts from admiration to sympathy for this fine actor who just can’t seem to find a role worthy of her talents recently. The film goes from bad to worse when it finally gets around to revealing what really happened across the street, all of it resolved in such a disappointing tell-instead-of-show fashion that it’s hard to be impressed by any of it. Wright does get credit for managing to create a claustrophobic, contained atmosphere in Anna’s home—even this sprawling upper West side mansion manages to feel full of dark shadows lurking in every corner. But one mansion haunted by Anna’s traumatic past and her imagined present doesn’t make up for this otherwise messy mystery from a creative team that’s capable of so much more.
The Woman in the Window is now streaming on Netflix.
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