The Woman in the Window makes the best out of a film-maudit mess

The Woman in the Window makes the best out of a film-maudit mess

There’s this idea that all films aspire to reach the heights of the very best films in their genre. All slasher movies, for example, are assumed to be made with the expectation that they’re trying to be as good as Halloween and that falling short of that is practically inevitable. This theory is particularly prevalent in marketing, which always seeks to compare a genre effort to the pinnacle of the world it exists in. I know that the marketing of Joe Wright’s The Woman in the Window will inevitably point to Rear Window or Repulsion as influences, because those are arguably the peak achievements in their field. Though The Woman in the Window certainly shares surface qualities with those films, what it most reminded me of was a second-tier thriller from the 1950s, starring someone like Joan Crawford or Vera Miles, that gets trotted out as being “ahead of its time” when it drops amongst a nine-film retrospective of its star on the Criterion Channel.

What I mean by this impossibly specific reference is that The Woman in the Window is absolutely aware of its roots as an old-fashioned programmer and vehicle for its star, as opposed to elevated horror or a plumbing psychological thriller. It’s a pretty dumb but undeniably effective bit of business in a way that’s fairly rare these days — and one that I suspect will earn it much ire.

Delayed for years after disastrous test screenings and bought by Netflix after its studio was closed down in yet another merger between corporations, The Woman in the Window comes with a prepackaged film maudit moniker that it doesn’t deserve. In a just world, it would be treated the way we treat second-tier Brian de Palma. But perhaps I’m just projecting here.

Anna Fox (Amy Adams) is a former psychiatrist who has been rendered housebound by agoraphobia. She never leaves her New York brownstone, mixing pills and alcohol day after day, and is separated from her husband (Anthony Mackie), who she speaks to on the phone regularly. Her main contact with the outside world is her tenant, David (Wyatt Russell), a singer-songwriter who does random errands for her when he’s around. When a new family moves in across the street, Anna becomes fascinated with watching their daily life. She eventually befriends the family’s son (Fred Hechinger) and then his mother (Julianne Moore), who comes to visit her ever so often. One night, Anna is doing her customary spying on her neighbours when she spots what looks like the mother being stabbed by her husband (Gary Oldman). She calls the cops only to discover that the mother from across the street is not dead — but isn’t the woman she met. As the lines between what’s real and isn’t become increasingly blurry, Anna finds herself trapped in a struggle for the truth.

The Woman in the Window is based on a best-selling novel that sounds exactly like the kind of hokey claptrap that makes for the best overwrought entertainment: a derivative genre story that attempts to reuse extremely familiar tropes and present them as if they were brand new. What Tracy Letts (who adapted the novel and appears in a small role as Fox’s therapist) understands is that this is basically genre hokum that doesn’t require any elevation — and should, in fact, actively avoid elevation. Letts and Wright have turned what could have been a turgid “mature” thriller into something completely different. Or, at least, that’s what they originally did.

The Woman in the Window is one of those movies where post-production tinkering and studio-mandated reshoots are rather obvious (and, thus, ineffective to some degree). Tonal shifts are evident and repetitive exposition seems shoehorned in as a way of smoothing out the film’s excesses. There’s no point in making assumptions about the film this might’ve been. Considering the amount of high-powered talent left to flounder in supporting roles here, one assumes that what they signed up for doesn’t really match what came out. But even through the film’s ill-advised salvage job aesthetics, a pretty fun and energetic thriller continues to exist. It’s one that holds no real surprises (which makes me wonder exactly how cryptic the first cut of this might have been) but nevertheless one that kept me entertained.

I cannot overstate the fact that The Woman in the Window is kind of a mess. It has a highly qualified cast, many of which are just asked to show up and deliver exposition while only somewhat in focus as the main character drifts in and out of a medicated haze. It is, by all accounts, not what a studio who purchases a best-selling pop thriller to make a movie out of it expects in 2021 — and that’s precisely what I like about it. In 10, 15 years from now, when all has become content related to superheroes or rom-coms starring TikTokers, I believe The Woman in the Window will be treated the way we treat off-brand cult items like Hider in the House now. It’s just a matter of time.

The Woman in the Window is on Netflix Canada as of May 14. Watch the trailer here:

The Woman in the Window starring Amy Adams, directed by Joe Wright

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