The Woman in the Window‘s journey to the (small) screen is now the stuff of legend. The novel of the same name was published in 2018 on the heels of some controversy surrounding author Dan Mallory, but nevertheless was a runaway success. Many of the reviews compared it to Gone Girl, so it’s a no brainer why Fox quickly bought the screen rights. Shortly after, Joe Wright (Atonement) was hired to direct with Tracy Letts writing the screenplay and Scott Rudin serving as producer. Add in an A-list cast featuring Amy Adams, Julianne Moore and Gary Oldman and you have all the makings of a smash… right?
Not exactly. Early test screenings were reportedly negative, leading to Rudin to hire Tony Gilroy (Michael Clayton) for some rewrites and reshoots and scrapping the original October 2019 release. The film was once again screened to test audiences, and was received “about the same.” After Fox was bought by Disney, the film underwent additional editing and was slated for a March 2020 release. We all know what happened next.
Against all odds the film was released on Netflix this past Friday, which feels like the only natural conclusion and a fitting end for its story. Though the world is slowly opening up and stumbling towards the possibility of “normal,” a theatrical release for The Woman in the Window was probably never going to happen. With Netflix, the film can be laid to rest in a graveyard of content where it will be eventually forgotten about. And after watching the film, that’s probably what it deserves. The Woman in the Window is a puzzling failure that squanders the pedigree of its cast and crew as it flails between a cheap rip off of Alfred Hitchcock, David Fincher and Gillian Flynn.
Adams stars as Anna Fox, an agoraphobic child psychologist living alone in a massive brownstone in Manhattan. Though she occasionally communicates with her estranged ex-husband Edward (Anthony Mackie), therapist (played by Letts) and the tenant (Wyatt Russell) living in her basement, she spends most of her time mixing medications with a lot of wine. Things change when a new family, the Russells, move in across the street. The matriarch, Jane (Moore), comes over one night for an impromptu card game and a few glasses of wine, leading to Jane revealing that her marriage might not be a happy one. Anna begins regularly spying on the family, witnessing what looks like Jane’s husband Alistair (Oldman) verbally abusing her and their son Ethan (Fred Hechinger). One night, Anna witnesses what looks like Jane being stabbed in her living room and being left for dead. She calls the police, although they don’t believe her and claim that upon investigating her claims have discovered that everyone in the family is fine. To prove her wrong, Jane (now played by Jennifer Jason Leigh) comes to the brownstone and introduces herself.
The premise owes a lot to Rear Window, something the film makes zero effort to hide; there’s even several sequences where Anna uses her camera to get a closer look at her neighbors, much like James Stewart’s L.B. Jefferies did. What made L.B.’s spying so entertaining was that the film treated us to quick looks at his neighbors. Watching now, his shifting gaze feels like a form of channel surfing with each apartment being its own inner universe. But unlike Rear Window, The Woman in the Window makes zero effort to give us a peek into the inner lives of her neighbors or build a world outside of the brownstone. Perhaps this was a creative choice to either distance the film from Rear Window and/or increase the sense of mystery around these characters, if only the central mystery was anything worth solving. Though there are plenty of MacGuffins deployed to throw the audience off track, but none of the characters or plot threads ever feel worthy of an investment because they all feel so half-baked. By the time the big reveal comes around, it feels like the equivalent to the lingering remnants of air being let out of an already deflated balloon.
Try as she might, Amy Adams cannot elevate the material. She gives a commendable performance as someone in the throws of depression, but Anna never feels like someone we can’t trust despite the film’s insistence that she is an unreliable narrator. Where Gone Girl endeared us to its two leads and then slowly revealed them both to be liars in their own right, but The Women in the Window doesn’t do any actual work to actually establish the narrative tension it so clearly wants. Sure, Anna is an alcoholic and we’re told her “medication can cause hallucinations,” but these feel less like stakes and more like distractions. The script paints the other characters in such broad strokes that it’s impossible to latch onto anyone else; even though we don’t know much else about her beyond her alcoholism, she’s the only thing resembling a character the audience can latch onto. The scene she shares with Moore’s character is the closest the film comes to establishing any interior life of these characters, but that lasts for just one scene, and it’s simply not enough.
I sense a lot of these issues stem from the involvement of Rudin and the studio; the first and second halves of The Woman in the Window feel like two different films at odds with one another. Though I doubt it was perfect, I’d guess that Wright’s original cut is at the very least more cohesive. With films like Pride & Prejudice, Hanna and Anna Karenina, Wright has established himself as a director with a lot of visual flair. There are moments here where that flair is allowed reveals itself, namely in how the sheer massiveness of the brownstone is depicted and how that accentuates Anna’s loneliness. If The Woman in the Window were a better film, it would have explored that a bit more. But in trying to be both Gone Girl and Rear Window, it forgets to establish its own identity.