The window has long been tied to the inherently voyeuristic medium that is cinema. An example frequently cited to illustrate this correlation is Rear Window. Common to many readings of the Hitchcock classic is the idea of the window becoming a mediator between the observer and the observed, and the interior and exterior. Only, Jimmy Stewart's Jeff crosses that threshold when he thinks he's witnessed a crime. Beyond the symbolic, the window also makes for a compelling plot device. In The Lady Vanishes, a name spelt out on the fogged window of a train compartment is proof the titular lady did exist, before she was replaced by a woman dressed like her. AJ Finn drew heartily from such Hitchcock films in his novel, The Woman in the Window — now a Netflix movie.
Amy Adams is Anna Fox, a housebound woman riddled with anxiety, agoraphobia and alcoholism. Once a noted child psychologist, she now spends her days mixing Merlot and meds, and "watching wildlife." That's what Finn, in the novel, called her compulsion to spy on neighbours across the street. Currently in her line of sight are the Russells: Julianne Moore is wife Jane, Gary Oldman is husband Alistair, and Fred Hechinger is their son Ethan. Anna and Jane instantly hit it off like old chums, and these few moments with Adams and Moore are ones to treasure.
Which makes what happens next a real bummer. Anna witnesses — or at least imagines she has — Jane's murder. So, she breaks her rule and "interferes with the wildlife." The police are called in. And here comes the first big twist. Alistair introduces them to an alive and well Jane, only she isn't the woman Anna met or spied on. Convinced the Jane, now played by Jennifer Jason Leigh, is an imposter, Anna — who loves her murder mysteries — finds herself in one.
Wearing his influences like a badge of honour, director Joe Wright attempts to make a thriller in the vein of Hitchcock's best. Attempts, being the operative word.
But the key to Hitchcock's enduring appeal was how we took simple setups and streamlined them to up the suspense quotient. Wright struggles to efficiently engineer the same thrills, and loses the viewer within the first act. Like Anna, he gets trapped in a prison of his own making. Lessons on updating Hitchcock’s work can be found in the films of Brian de Palma, who re-modelled them in his own formal style. There was a clear unmistakable vision in every homage, which elevated it from mere pastiche.
Of all the Hitchcock films, Rear Window perhaps gave us some of the most insightful analysis into cinema. Jean Douchet saw the film as an allegory for the voyeuristic apparatus that it is, remarking how Jeff and the audience become one in observing something which can't return the gaze. Laura Mulvey framed the idea of the male gaze on the same grounds, arguing how Grace Kelly's Lisa and women in cinema are visually positioned as objects of male desire. Finn flipped the gender to subvert the gaze, only to fall prey to the trope of the "unreliable female protagonist."
True to the psychological horror genre, the cops (Brian Tyree Henry and Jeanine Serralles) refuse to believe Anna on account of her drinking habit, assuming she has imagined the whole thing. It exemplifies a culture which casts doubt on the testimony of women under the pretext that their biology makes them more emotional, irrational and thus unreliable witnesses.
Rather than mine the horrors of not being believed, Wright opts for cheap scares. In service of which, Wyatt Russell, who plays Anna's tenant David, becomes a faux jump scare literalised in human form.
Anna shares the same photographic intrigue as Jeff in Rear Window. But what leaves her trapped in her own home is a less physical, more psychological, ailment that is no less paralysing. Key to decoding the trauma, which has rendered Anna a shut-in, lies in confronting the guilt over a past accident. Adams is no stranger to fractured portraits of internalised trauma. The pain of the past written on her body, the alcoholic Camille Preaker in Sharp Objects was unforgettable in its quietly affecting performance. Anna, though not as hammy as her turn (also as an alcoholic) in Hillbilly Elegy, is full of raw nervous energy in a way which calls attention to itself. When she shines, she shines in the film's quieter, more introspective moments. This is where we see glimpses of the movie that could have been: a well-calibrated exercise in suspense led by a potentially haunting performance.
Anna's apartment is haunted by old memories and whatever trauma she's trying to escape from. The setting turns into an increasingly oppressive backdrop for her mental unravelling. The music too captures the feeling of diving headlong into an anxious mind. Leaky faucets, ringing doorbells, and ticking clocks add to the ambient surround effects.
Unfortunately, the film's external reality and internal ambiguity don't really add up to anything substantial in the end.
The book is a bestseller. The filmmaker has a good track record with adaptations. Furthermore, he introduced the world to the talents of one Saoirse Ronan, and directed Gary Oldman to his first Oscar. The screenwriter, Tracy Letts, is a noted playwright. As mentioned, there are stars aplenty plus two Captain Americas in Anthony Mackie and Wyatt Russell to boot. Yet, The Woman in the Window is an utter disaster. It was fated, having suffered production delays, poor test screenings, and reshoots — before finally ending up in the dumping ground that has become Netflix.
In an interview with Entertainment Weekly, Wright admitted to the troubled production. "There were some plot points that people found a bit confusing — I would say possibly too opaque maybe. So we had to go back and clarify certain points, but I think also we tried to make sure we didn't oversimplify anything and make things too clear. There's an enjoyment in not knowing what's going on, but at the same time, you have to give the audience something to hold on to — you have to lead them through the labyrinth of mystery and fear," he said. Despite the rewrites and reshoots, let us assure you there is nothing to hold on to. No labyrinth of mystery and fear worth following. It's a good thing a movie about agoraphobia got dumped on Netflix, instead of cinemas. For nobody would have shown up.
Our rating: 1.5 Quints Out of 5
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