There’s a moment late in The Woman in the Window where Amy Adams, sitting on a stairwell and watching unspeakable horror unfold, lets out an almost melodic wail. She grips the bars on the stairs with white knuckles, eyes alight with fear, and lets out a noise that feels straight out of something from Psycho – and all the absurdity that entails.
Unfortunately, this new Netflix thriller doesn’t lean far enough into its obvious Hitchcockian roots to make it the campy horror classic it could have been. Directed by Joe Wright and written by Tracy Letts, the film is riddled with goofy dialogue, pacing issues and plot holes. But, just when you think you’ve had enough, a cool cinematography trick or an over-the-top line reading are enough to make you remember why you turned this on in the first place – and might watch it again.
The Woman in the Window follows Dr. Anna Fox (Amy Adams), a child psychologist who, following a mysterious traumatic event, begins to suffer from agoraphobia and refuses to leave her home. Instead, she spends her days obsessing over the lives of her neighbours, including the newly moved-in Russell family across the street. After striking up a small friendship with the Russells’ 15-year-old son Ethan (Fred Hechinger) and Ethan’s mother (Julianne Moore), Anna witnesses a terrifying event through her window, and becomes convinced that something more sinister is going on.
A steady flow of prescription drugs and healthy pours of red wine make Anna an unreliable narrator from the jump, and Wright and cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel’s framing of her descent into madness draws the viewer in. Anna’s house plays a large part in that immersion – it is cavernous, with a creaking spiral staircase that seems to go on forever. The layout of the home is never quite clear, playing into Anna’s supposed hallucinations and instability.
Anna spends her days and nights wandering through this labyrinth in flowing nightgowns, glass of wine clutched in hand, burying herself further down the rabbit hole – and the film’s stylistic choices put us right there with her. The Woman in the Window might fall short in many ways, but there are plenty of moments where it looks stunning.
There’s a particularly arresting shot of Anna watching 1947’s Dark Passage. She’s asleep in the foreground as a doctor prepares to perform plastic surgery on Humphrey Bogart’s Vincent Parry. The television starts glitching as Anna wakes up, confused and addled, and she lifts her head in front of the fragmented screen. It’s a striking visual representation of Anna’s own fractured mind.
However striking those moments are, when the film focuses on more plot driven moments instead of Anna’s state of mind, that impressive visual style slips away, and the shots become bland. The performances, for all their fun absurdity, suffer from the same problem. Adams does the best job at walking the line, embracing the silliness of it all while still managing to ground the performance in the trauma her character’s undergone. She’s forced to reckon with dialogue that is sometimes boring and sometimes preposterous and the fact that she can land it at all is a reminder of just how good Adams is.
But other actors don’t really get the space to work with both the ludicrous and the grounded the way Adams does. They’re forced to choose one or the other – and in a movie with lines like “I like cats’ tongues,” how could you not choose to go with the ludicrous approach? That firecracker of a line belongs to Hechinger as Ethan Russell, who does what he can with a wildly out of balance character. Julianne Moore is alluring as Ethan’s mother, laying the charm on thick, shining like a lightbulb and buzzing just the same – but under all that pop, there’s something darker crackling underneath the surface.
Other actors aren’t so lucky. As Detective Little, Brian Tyree Henry is criminally underutilised, more of a plot device and audience stand-in than anything else. Wyatt Russell is good as Anna’s tenant, David, but loses the over-the-top characteristic most of the other actors have. He’s intimidating in a way that feels real, which the rest of the movie decidedly doesn’t.
The Woman in the Window may not be camp incarnate, and it might not even really be that good, but there are thrilling aspects hidden within the walls of Anna’s house – certainly enough to keep you entertained.
The Woman in the Window is available to stream on Netflix now
by Sammie Purcell
Sammie is a freelance journalist who has written about education, film and culture for publications such as Boston University News Service and Oz Magazine. For more fun insights, you can follow her on twitter @sammie_purcell8