Sunday Movie Review: ‘Woman in the Window’ is, alas, a muddled mess

The girl isn’t gone. There’s one on the train, and there’s another in the window.

“Woman in the Window,” based on A.J. Finn’s 2018 best-seller, is the latest adaptation in a run on female-led thrillers that have gone from page to screen with their intriguingly vague titles intact. Gillian Flynn’s “Gone Girl” kicked off a mini-craze that, in movie form at least, began promisingly. David Fincher’s adaptation — an engrossingly dark inquiry into marriage — is still the best of the bunch. But that’s not saying much considering the knockoffs that have followed.

Just as in Tate Taylor’s adaptation of “The Girl on the Train,” Joe Wright’s “Woman in the Window” is a seemingly made-for-the-movies tale that falls oddly limp in the transfer. These are all books that trade heavily on cinematic tropes and traditions, and none more so than the novel by Finn (real name Dan Mallory). The book’s blend of voyeurism and psychodrama scream movies. It’s baked right into both the book and film, with allusions here to Hitchcock, the Humphrey Bogart thriller “Dark Passage” and the very, very great ’40s noir “Laura.”

That’s probably what attracted so much talent to “Woman in the Window,” which debuts Friday on Netflix. It stars Amy Adams, Julianne Moore, Gary Oldman, Brian Tyree Henry and even finds room for Anthony Mackie in a part mostly heard over the phone. The script is by the Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright and actor Tracy Letts. The film is produced by Scott Rudin (his first released since renewed allegations of bullying and abusive behavior forced him to step back from moviemaking ).

All the ingredients are there. And yet “Woman in the Window,” which had a labored path to release, comes off as a pastiche of better films, with all the requisite shadows but none of the substance.

Adam plays Anna Fox, an agoraphobic child psychologist who, after a tragedy, is too frightened to leave her Harlem brownstone, which she keeps darkened, without the lights on. Just right there is a hint of the problems in “Woman in the Window.” The melodrama has been turned up to the max. In just one little character description you get psychology, kids, trauma, grief and gentrification. Anna is heavily medicated, including some large glasses of red wine.

As a narrator, she’s so abundantly unreliable that it makes the movie’s coming twists all the more foreseeable. (I say this as someone who normally sees nothing coming.) Wright sticks closely to her perspective. The movie barely sets foot outside Anna’s home, a 19th century townhouse with a circular staircase and, naturally, a skylight. Our experience of every encounter is, like Anna’s paranoia, extremely heightened. No one just talks in “Woman in the Window.” Every conversation of Anna’s is full of probing and prying, veiled threats and landmines. The only exception is Henry’s sensitive, melancholic police detective, a grounding force in a movie choking on its own atmosphere.

But by hewing close to Anna’s own intense unease, “Woman in the Window” attempts something like the recent Oscar-winning “The Father,” which adapted its protagonist’s dementia. This is the kind of stuff that Brian De Palma would eat for breakfast. He, surely, would find more disturbing and lurid avenues to explore here.

People just keep walking into Anna’s home, including her basement tenant, an aspiring musician played by Wyatt Russell. She has a few bizarre meetings with members of a newly moved in family across the street (Oldman, Moore and Fred Hechinger, who plays the 15-year-old son Ethan). Picking up some very heavy cues, Anna begins to fear for the boy and spies across the street. One night, she’s looking through a telephoto lens when she sees a woman thrown against the wall and stabbed in the belly. When police respond to Anna, she’s told no one is missing. She’s introduced by the woman she met, Jane Russell — only now it’s a different Jane, played by Jennifer Jason Leigh.

With a churning score and a few flashy camera tricks, Wright lays it on thick. But the pacing and rhythm — perhaps the result of a lengthy post-production period of reshoots and recuts — feel wrong from the first minutes. It’s a shame. Adult thrillers with stars and some scale are a rare breed. But the movie, straining for high brow when it should have just gone full trash, is a muddle from start to finish. After a year of quarantine and lockdown, it’s all the more tempting — given the messy results — to listen to an early question posed by Anna: “Why not make today the day you go outside?”

“Woman in the Window,” a Netflix release, is rated R by the Motion Picture Association of America for violence and language. Running time: 100 minutes. One and a half stars out of four.


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