starring Amy Adams, Gary Oldman, Anthony Mackie, Julianne Moore
screenplay by Tracy Letts, based upon the novel by A.J. Finn
directed by Joe Wright
by Walter Chaw By the end of her career, after decades spent weathering abuse and disappointment, Joan Crawford turned in a series of extraordinarily nuanced performances playing older women doing their best against despair. Watch the look on her face in Sudden Fear when a much-younger Jack Palance shows some interest in her, even after she's been cruel to him--the mixture of hope and suspicion, the hard-won wisdom of a lifetime of betrayals at her expense. Crawford and legendary rival Bette Davis were slotted into stuff like this in their middle-age--an entire "psycho-biddy" subgenre of exploitation picture that, despite being engineered to humiliate them, nonetheless resulted in a few sublime gems made exceptional, some would correctly argue, for the unexpected dignity these women brought to the projects. Case in point, What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?: come for the camp, stay for the devastating existential pathos. By any measure, 46 is not "biddy" territory, but that's the age Crawford is in Sudden Fear (probably; no one knows for sure when Crawford was born). At 46, Davis reprised the role of Queen Elizabeth, this time well into her dotage, and, indeed, 46 is how old Amy Adams is in the role of drunk and doped-up, agoraphobic nutjob Dr. Anna Fox in Joe Wright's ridiculous--but not ridiculous enough--The Woman in the Window.
Adapted from a bestseller by A.J. Finn, the pseudonym for a veteran of the publishing industry who's obsessed with Patricia Highsmith and fond in real life of the same sort of sociopathic manipulations as Highsmith's hero, Tom Ripley, The Woman in the Window is high-toned trash of the woman-hating kind in which even the victims--especially the victims--are completely fucking crazy. Anna lives with her "ugly" cat and a boarder in her sprawling, decaying, moldy Harlem brownstone, afraid to go outside and peeping at her neighbours, L.B. Jefferies-style, to while away the hours between popping handfuls of antidepressants that are likely causing her to hallucinate. As this is Shrek for casual Hitchcock and film noir fans, all the references it makes are superficial and, moreover, footnoted with clips from the films in question. Having a Freudian dream? Joe Wright's split dioptre has Dali's dream sequence from Spellbound swimming above our dreamer like a planetarium reel. Investigating the murder to find the victim alive and well? Well, goddamn if that's not straight out of Laura. The Woman in the Window is subtle in the way a book designed to be read on an airplane ride or left at the beach is subtle. (It's not subtle.) Subtle loses the half of the audience that refuses to wear masks, and doesn't their money spend the same? It does, alas. It does.
Mining the references for depth, then, is a fruitless pursuit. They're merely proof that Finn--and Wright, and possibly you, gentle viewer--have seen some of the films these very fine actors are now recreating in this big-budget cartoon. This isn't even a complaint, really; were The Woman in the Window actually directed by Brian De Palma, it would have been rapturously compared to the rest of his work, ranked and contextualized somewhere between Obsession and Body Double (which happens to share the voyeurism angle while adding Melanie Griffith as a pornstar and a giant power drill as a phallic symbol). De Palma is obnoxious in a way that Wright is not, in other words. Wright would have done well to lean into the animated blood that spatters the lens of Anna's camera when she witnesses the murder of her only friend, Jane (Julianne Moore). Jane, as it happens, is also completely insane. Later, we learn the singer-songwriter heartthrob renting from Anna (Wyatt Russell) has had a dalliance with Jane but found her to be loquacious and "crazy," sure, and so he spent the day away from his apartment just waiting for her to leave. Nice. After reporting what she's seen to sympathetic Detective Little (Brian Tyree Henry, not doing his Mr. Yunioshi accent this time), Jane #2 (Jennifer Jason Leigh) shows up on the arm of her scary British husband, Alistair (Gary Oldman). Then there's Jane and Alistair's son, Ethan (Fred Hechinger), who is obviously the spoiler alert from the first 30 seconds he's on screen but interesting enough to watch that it hardly matters.
Of course, just as nobody plays Calvinball for the rules, no one watches these things for the plot, I hope. The only way for The Woman in the Window to "win" would be to make the entire thing the expressionist funhouse of a raving lunatic--to abandon any pretence of empathy for its women characters. Giving Anna a path out of trauma and madness through more trauma and more madness is the most dangerous idea in a misogynistic muddle. Anna is utterly insane. Jane is utterly insane. When Jane #2 is later interrogated, Detective Little reports that Alistair "won't say a word, but Jane, she won't stop talking." Bitches, amiright? To balance things out, there's a female detective, Norelli (Jeanine Serralles), who seems genuinely exhausted with women as they're portrayed in movies like this. Though Adams does as well here as she does with a similarly thankless psycho-biddy turn in Hillbilly Elegy, my modest proposal is that this is not an essential career direction for actresses of a certain age. To say nothing of the fact that Adams has at least a couple dozen roles left in her as something other than a humiliated husk playing out the string--in a high key, no less--at the end of her life. The Woman in the Window is fine as high-gloss trash goes (who doesn't want their favourite disposable best-seller to be shot, at least for its first hour, like Darkman?), but imagine how great it could have been had it just gone full exploitation. Not good, right? But amazing.