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The Woman in the Window

Updated: Jul 7

Released 2021. Director: Joe Wright

YOU SAW SOMEONE BEING MURDERED BUT NOBODY BELIEVES YOU. Even the police think you imagined it. How maddening it must be. Now you begin to doubt yourself.

I love a good mystery, but I'm not fond of those that cheat and weasel out with illogical or lazy resolutions. The Woman in the Window has the makings of a decent tale of ambiguity and whodunit, even though a lot of it sounds familiar.

In a handsomely-decorated Harlem brownstone lives the agoraphobic Anna Fox who hasn’t stepped out in ages. We get a vague sense of her history through phone chats with her ex-husband and visits by her psychiatrist. Anna is not completely alone – she has a cat (or does she?) and a tenant by the name of David in the basement who harbours a few secrets.

Whether it’s more boredom or voyeurism, Anna begins fixating on a family moving in across the street. Spying on her new neighbours is more fun than the film noir on TV, which Anna doesn’t really pay attention to while it functions to signal the movie’s aspiration. Some might acknowledge this as a knowing nod to the masters of the genre, others might call the obvious visual connection unsubtle.

Ethan, the neighbour’s teenage son, turns up with a gift from his mum. As a child psychologist, Anna suspects Ethan needs attention and may be abused by his violent and authoritarian father. The next unexpected guest is Ethan’s gregarious mum Jane, who hits it off with the reclusive Anna chilling and drinking like two BFFs.

The next evening Anna looks at her neighbours through her zoom lens and sees Jane getting stabbed. In shock, Anna calls 911 but the detectives find nothing of the sort and conclude this woman is a bit too imaginative. The kicker is, the neighbours come over and there she is, Jane in the flesh, very much alive, but not the same woman Anna remembers. What’s going on? Too many pills mixed with too many drinks?

How much can we trust this unreliable witness? When the cause of her mental condition is revealed and it appears that Anna is delusional, you know it’s simply not true. Of course the woman in the window is right and the neighbours are hiding something. The anticipation is whether the explanation will be sensible and satisfactory in the end.

Paying lip service to mental illness and family trauma and throwing in clumsy boo moments, director Joe Wright turns the final 20 minutes into an overcooked B-grade slasher, the kind that’s all the rage in the late 70s and early 80s. It’s not that I don’t buy the revelation of a psycho killer on the loose, it’s the behaviour of some of the characters that stretches credibility, in particular the people familiar with the killer and aware of what’s gone on before.

Confining the story and action to the interiors is one way of conjuring claustrophobia, yet the movie never feels closed in or oppressive even when it’s always dark and half-lit. Creating the right mood clearly takes a lot more than simply dimming the light. (For a brilliant example of someone terrorised in a similar home, check out David Fincher’s suspenseful Panic Room starring Jodie Foster.)

Now let's add scenes featuring the crazed killer grabbing your ankles, frantic stabbing, struggle on the roof, stormy night lit in a blue tint, crashing through a skylight, and you really have some of the most clichéd ideas ever committed to the genre.

The Woman in the Window boasts an impressive cast of Oscar winners and nominees: Gary Oldman, Julianne Moore, Jennifer Jason-Leigh and Amy Adams. The greater mystery is how an ensemble like this ended up giving a one-note performance. These people dredge up the darkest bits in their neighbours’ lives, but I can’t say they manage to appeal for the smallest amount of sympathy. Anna is a perceptive psychologist, a smart woman under mental and physical siege. Her character deserves a movie with better treatment and understanding.

If you’re wondering if this movie is a remake of the 1944 movie of the same title directed by Fritz Lang, no, it isn’t. This movie is based on a novel by A. J. Finn and adapted by Tracy Letts (who also plays the psychiatrist here). Thanks to The Woman in the Window, I felt a need to watch Alfred Hitchcock’s 1954 classic again and I have to say after 67 years, no Peeping Tom movies come close to Rear Window.


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