Not to shock you, but movies like to fake you out. No matter how well a film’s imagination can wow you at first, we all learn that things on the screen are made-up for our amusement. There isn’t actually a laser about to cut James Bond in half, the shark biting the Orca is actually made of fiberglass, and Luke Skywalker is just in a small long box being shaken around for dramatic effect. But an audience can forgive a movie’s lack of authenticity if it’s fun to watch, either through pure entertainment or legitimate interest. How can you not feed a Gremlin after midnight? Doesn’t matter, because Gizmo is adorable. How does Leonardo DiCaprio’s team enter a dream of someone already in a dream? Don’t know, but that hallway fight is great! Suspension of disbelief is mostly dependent on the quality of the movie itself, and if a movie is bad at building suspense, it’s hard to follow the path it wants an audience to walk down.
The Woman in the Window has the starting line for said path. Anna Fox (Amy Adams) is a child psychologist who claims to suffer from agoraphobia, meaning she cannot bring herself to leave her faded and dimly-lit city apartment. Instead she spends her days drinking, taking various medications while drinking, watching black-and-white movies, chatting with her basement tenant (Wyatt Russell), and checking in with her ex-husband (Anthony Mackie). Then the Russell family moves in across the street and Anna starts noticing some things. Teenage son Ethan (Fred Hechinger) is precocious and a bit weary of his parents. Matriarch Jane (Julianne Moore) is aloof and will talk about everything but herself. And then there’s Alistair Russell (Gary Oldman), the husband and father that Anna can’t get a read on. That is until she hears Jane screaming one night and sees her stabbed to death through her apartment window. When Anna calls the police, Alistair is in her home denying that Jane has ever met her. To Anna’s shock, Jane is also in her home but with a different face (Jennifer Jason Leigh) and a different story. Is Anna going crazy or someone playing with her fragile mind?
There is a sliver of a good version of The Woman in the Window within this adaptation of A.J. Finn’s 2018 novel. Just about an hour in, Anna gets her dramatic revealing monologue unveiling the tragedy that left her physically isolated and emotionally damaged. Amy Adams, ever the professional, brings subtlety and nuance to the piece by showing every bit of Anna’s mind breaking down on her in real time. Director Joe Wright (Atonement, Darkest Hour) affords Adams that same subtlety, slowly following her around the set and carefully dollying-in so the audience leans in to this centerpiece of the story. This stripped-down approach to direction and to-the-point story beat should be the way to tackle a mystery as small and singular as the movie sets up.
Sadly, this was only applied to a sparse number of the movie’s minutes. The rest of the 100-minute runtime is flogged with dialogue that’s both overwritten and sloppy, diverting from the movie’s main mystery. You’d think someone like Tracy Letts, who’s penned movie adaptations of his own plays including Killer Joe and August: Osage County, could turn such a secluded drama into something as tense as a great stage production. But his take on The Woman in the Window is written like a campy parody of Hitchcock classics and other thrillers of the 1950s. Anna’s agoraphobia is laid-out like a crutch to give her more reason not to leave the apartment for drama. The agoraphobia is never really highlighted or used effectively in more than two scenes.
Anna’s personal drama is far more interesting than the movie’s mystery itself, which has multiple red herrings that aren’t teased out very well and a twist brought out at the 11th hour with little shock or cleverness. To compensate, the movie comes with some bizarre framing and editing choices to heighten Anna’s condition. Wright and his team use dutch angles, light overexposure, and random cuts equivalent to jump scares in cheap horror movies to shake the audience into the same paranoia of their lead character. It’s as if Wright doesn’t trust the audience to get enveloped in the mystery so he has to keep shaking them up like they’re on a carnival ride. At least Danny Elfman’s score mixes creeping string sections with electronic choices to provide subtlety in the context of a modern thriller. But as a whole, Wright’s work is over stylized and unnecessarily heightened seemingly to make-up for a lackluster script.
With that in mind, at least he cast a dedicated actress to help carry the load. Adams has proven on many occasions that no matter what script she’s given, she delivers an engaging performance. She knows the line between emotionally-invested and chewing scenery, able to jump from the bright energy of The Muppets and Enchanted to the grounded human exploration of Nocturnal Animals and Arrival. The Woman in the Window doesn’t give her much to work with, but she builds the nuances of Anna’s character without overplaying her hand. Adams creates a slightly-warm demeanor with nervously-garbled line delivery before jumping to wide-eyed fear and frantic movement around the towering apartment at just the right times. She nails Anna’s spiraling downfall with nuance and poise, something lost on the rest of castmates. Moore acts like a boozy flake spilling random platitudes like word vomit, almost like a lazy retread of her performance in Boogie Nights. Russell has a creepy and imposing demeanor in his presence, but he over-exaggerates nearly every line delivery and body movement. Oldman is guilty of this too, but at least his movie outbursts remain as entertaining as they were nearly 30 years ago.
Maybe someday out there in the world, someone will give The Woman in the Window a proper adaptation. There’s a lot of potential in a story about trying to solve a muder while literally at a distance, hell it’s been done before, quite famously, in Rear Window. But Wright’s overcompensating direction and Letts’s lackluster script cripple the interesting premise and Adams’s focused performance. Was Letts trying to parody boilerplate movie thrillers and Wright just ran with it? Who knows, but even the oddness of the movie’s design doesn’t cover it failing the story. If you have so much disbelief in a movie, how can you suspend it all?
The Woman in the Window is now streaming on Netflix.