A woman with agoraphobia who lives apart from her family spies a killing in the house across the road.
Film lovers, you can sleep easy in your beds — unlike Anna in this movie — as The Woman In The Window is not the great disaster you may have heard.
It’s not great either, but its main crime is a flabby middle section that simply doesn’t go far enough. Think of it not as a bad Hitchcock rip-off but as an undercooked thriller, made 35 years too late rather than 60.
Like a late ’80s Adrian Lyne erotic blockbuster, but minus the eroticism, towards the end it revels in glorious luridness, but as a whole I almost felt director Joe Wright lacked the courage of his convictions (until that mad ending).
Once it gets going (an hour in!) it’s terrific fun despite a couple of excruciating amdram moments, and would actually make a great Christmas Eve thriller, with a big bottle of wine and all your friends on Whatsapp watching it together.
Psychologist Anna (Amy Adams) has agoraphobia and hasn’t been outside for 10 months. She lives in her gloomy New York brownstone, with her cat Punch and her basement lodger David (Wyatt Russell), and spends her hours watching either old movies or her neighbours across the street through their windows. She’s separated from her husband, who lives elsewhere with their young daughter Olivia, though they speak on the phone all the time. Her psychiatrist visits her at home and tries to get her to stop drinking on her meds.
A new family moves in across the road, the Russells; their teenage son Ethan (Fred Hechinger) pops round to say hello. Ethan seems to be scared of his dad and the psychologist in Anna is concerned.
Then his mother Jane Russell (Julianne Moore, excellent) appears and stays for wine. She’s prickly, unpredictable, mercurial and a bit mysterious, and provides more real life than Anna has witnessed in months.
Later Anna sees her stabbed to death during an argument in the Russell house opposite, the assailant hidden by the wall between the windows. The police don’t believe her because Jane Russell is alive and well; the Jane Russell she is then introduced to turns out to be an entirely different woman (played by Jennifer Jason Leigh). Ethan’s dad Alistair Russell (Gary Oldman) is aggressive and threatening, but this just makes Anna more determined. With little else to do, and a mystery on her doorstep, she is soon investigating from her elegant prison.
Alistair could very well be a middle class thug in a suit but he also might have every reason to be pissed off: “a drunken shut-in, pill-popping cat lady,” he calls Anna, which is harsh but true. At this point we don’t know if or to what extent he is involved, but Anna has cast him as the guilty party.
Increasingly people think she’s deluded, or hallucinating on her medication. She’s easy to disbelieve, her early accusations seemingly impossible to be true, especially when they factor in her own past which they know about and we don’t. The evidence against her piles up thanks to her cry-wolf phone calls to the police, taking the focus away from the people who live in the house where Jane Russell was apparently killed.
There are little clues along the way, disconcerting fragments that show something is amiss but are easily dismissed by police and everyone else: an earring, soundless tableaux seen from her high window, evidence David might not be all he seems. The internet delivers more, just enough to pick up a trail, though the Russell family is mostly absent from the online world.
The Woman In The Window (another title that could be referring to both protagonist and object of their interest) starts interestingly and ends gloriously, but the middle is a stodgy pudding. Unsurprisingly I was gripped at the beginning, trying to work out where her family was and why she wouldn’t go outside, but it quickly runs out of steam. I did persevere, but on a streamer it will be easy for its audience to give up too soon. A shame, as eventually the movie bursts into florid, lurid life, giving us the loud, massively over-the-top ending we deserved from the set up.
These swaps between stodge and melodrama, like a once dried-out garden blooming after a sudden rainstorm, are reflected in Adams’ performance. Sometimes she seems on autopilot, though she too springs back into life when Jane Russell the 1st arrives, a disruptor to the bland boredom of Anna’s existence. It happens again in the few scenes where Anna is reflecting her own shame and self-disgust back at herself, and in one scene near the end where she is planning her own death. It’s at this point that we finally see her understanding something of the incongruous situation, terrifying and hilarious, that she finds herself in.
There is also a strong and uncomfortable sense that we too are intruding on Anna, that not even her brownstone haven is safe.
The Woman In The Window may be a long way from Hitchcock but there are some good touches. The house lends itself to staginess; at one point everyone turns up — the Russells, David, the police — facing down Anna like a bad farce or a well-meaning intervention, showing the physical reality of her mental isolation. Adding to that feeling are some literal additions, where flashbacks become real in Anna’s life as she has to finally face her own past, looking inwards instead of trying to escape into strangers’ lives through her window.
Wyatt Russell is very good as her lodger, another character who may or may not be who they say they are. He turns out not to be all nasty or all nice; realistically flawed people are often the most shifty-seeming in a medium that increasingly demands good or evil and not gradations of both. Moore, as the first Mrs Jane Russell, is a blistering visitor, brittle and warm, comforting and frightening. Oldman shrieks on cue, but isn’t around that much. Hechinger is terrific when we first meet him, channelling that awkward teenage demeanour, that slight weirdness that can almost be frightening but you don’t want to shy away from because the teenage years are so hard for them to navigate anyway.
The ending has everything. Murder. Darkness. Lashings of rain. A bloodied dagger held aloft. The killer explaining himself to her and us. There’s even a shot from above of a staircase curling through several floors, something no decent thriller should be without in its final, violent, desperate moments. The soundtrack pounds and screeches. If only it had all been like that, revelling in its wild-eyed delirium.
Not sure about that ending? If you think you missed something, read my article about it here.
The Woman In The Window is now streaming on Netflix
Watch the trailer for The Woman In The Window: