The bestselling novel The Woman in the Window is the kind of pulpy mystery you’d tear through while waiting in an airport terminal. The tale of an agoraphobic woman who witnesses a murder across her street, it feels ripe for a cinematic adaptation. Unfortunately, the book’s road to the big screen has more interesting twists and turns than those in the film.
About a year after it was published, author Dan Mallory — using the pseudonym A.J. Finn — turned out to have a lot in common with the novel’s unreliable narrator. Mallory’s background of having brain cancer and being the only surviving member of his immediate family was revealed as one of the many lies he credited as a side effect of bipolar II disorder. The book is fraught with the sort of trauma and family tension he seemed to experience, and its heroine shares similar delusions.
Who better to adapt the novel than Tracy Letts, the playwright of the Pulitzer Prize-winning family drama August: Osage County? His writing makes him the perfect match for this material. From the mix of crime and family in his debut play, Killer Joe, to the delusions explored in Bug, his work leads naturally to The Woman in the Window. But you can tell the film didn’t turn out as he intended by his recent declining of interviews and earlier statement that the production “kind of sucked.”
Right from the opening frames, the film shows that it’s nothing new or special. Before we meet Anna Fox (Amy Adams), we see Rear Window paused on her TV, and the camera pans across her neighbors’ windows just as it does in the Alfred Hitchcock classic to which Woman pays obvious homage. But unlike that film’s protagonist, Anna isn’t just bored and laid up in bed with an injury. She spies on her neighbors to alleviate her agoraphobia and experience the outside world from a safe distance. But soon her newly moved-in neighbors start invading her space and disrupting her routine.
First, an awkward teen named Ethan (Fred Hechinger) drops by to give Anna a candle from his mother. Then, his mom, Jane (Julianne Moore), comes to Anna’s rescue when she faints outside her home while defending it from rowdy trick-or-treaters. Jane’s husband, Alistair (Gary Oldman), looms over them all as an abusive presence in the neighborhood. Anna’s sheltered world turns upside down when she witnesses him resort to murder. But no one believes the pill-popping, wine-guzzling recluse, right? Is she telling the truth or is it all in her mind?
You can imagine this story jumping off the page, but it unfortunately lies flat on the screen, negating its mystery by constantly spoon-feeding information. You can tell that studio execs got in the way after multiple scenes of Oldman’s character dismissing Anna as a “crazy cat lady.” We get it; she might not be the most credible witness. The harping on the stereotypically “delirious woman in peril” seems like a note from reportedly abusive, sexist producer Scott Rudin.
Woman is the kind of psychological thriller that should make you squirm as its surprises punch you in the gut and rattle around in your head. But it seems all too eager to put viewers’ minds to rest. As Letts suggests, the finished film is clearly a response to test screenings in which the audience wasn’t willing to keep tumbling down the story’s rabbit hole of thorny twists and turns.
In an interview with The Playlist, Letts said: “We showed it to an audience in Paramus, New Jersey, and they didn’t like it. And so there have been some rewrites and reshoots that I didn’t have anything to do with.”
Studio execs pissed on a Pulitzer Prize-winning writer’s screenplay because of some New Jersey folks’ reactions after a free screening? Well, not entirely. Apparently, Rudin mucked things up as well.
Adams is the film’s saving grace. She delivers an A-list performance in a C-grade movie. Sadly, Moore and Oldman are wasted, and Jennifer Jason Leigh appears in a glorified cameo, delivering just a couple of lines. Wyatt Russell also stars as Anna’s tenant, and while serving as a red herring, he lays the cheese on thick and comes on far too menacing. Meanwhile, Hechinger isn’t quite menacing enough as the troubled teen. Brian Tyree Henry delivers an engaging, empathetic performance as the detective who’s refreshingly grounded among these eccentric characters.
Director Joe Wright brings some visual flair to liven up the single-setting drama. However, after coming out of quarantine, it’s still a bit depressing to watch a movie about someone cooped up in their house and coping with paranoia.
Simplistic and tame, The Woman in the Window is ultimately the result of old-fashioned studio interference. If Netflix had full control of the film, you can imagine Letts and Wright having free reign to release the more complex cut. They’re just as worthy of the leeway Netflix gave Martin Scorsese and Charlie Kaufman. But the sleazy suits of yesteryear’s Hollywood wanted to play it safe for money’s sake. What a shame.