Some movies simply arrive doomed, their behind-the-scenes narratives – troubled production histories, star feuds, financial blowouts – pre-digested by pundits and passed on to a media all-too happy to perpetuate the bad press.
Atonement director Joe Wright’s The Woman in the Window, a new thriller starring Amy Adams as an agoraphobic New York child psychologist convinced she’s witnessed a neighbour’s murder, is a classic case in point: a once-hot movie that endured disastrous test screenings, disgruntled executives and multiple reshoots before landing at Netflix, where its critical reception has, perhaps predictably, been largely hostile.
Ripe with ludicrous dialogue, awkward direction and moments of seemingly random comedy – psychotic teens, deranged Google searches, cats snapped in photographic peril – it’s a movie destined to be unloved, conforming neither to conventional taste nor the “so bad it’s good” credo beloved by so many unfunny chuckleheads.
It’s also a total blast.
Adams is Dr. Anna Fox, puffy, strung out and drifting around a large brownstone in Harlem with her longhaired cat Punch, separated from her husband (a largely off-screen Anthony Mackie) and young daughter and sunk deep in a fog of drinking, medication, and self-induced cabin fever.
Her only human interaction arrives via weekly sessions with her own therapist – played by the film’s screenwriter, Tracy Letts (Lady Bird, French Exit) – and the occasional encounter with her basement tenant (Wyatt Russell, The Falcon and the Winter Soldier), a singer-songwriter slash handyman whose floppy acoustic hair quietly transforms to a slicked-back serial killer vibe as the plot unravels.
Wright and Adams have already ramped up the off-kilter atmosphere before the action proper kicks in: the film opens with what appears to be a galaxy of stars draining into Anna’s eye, while the camera’s lateral tracks across the apartment take in the mental disarray of abandoned child dollhouses, dimly-lit rooms and brazen quotes from Hitchcock films glitching on TV freeze frames.
When new neighbours the Russells – white mum, dad, and teenage son – move in across the street, Anna’s already shaky reality begins to crumble.
“There goes the neighbourhood,” she jokes, a bizarre remark for a white woman to make on the gentrification of Manhattan’s most famous Black district.
The new family soon starts dropping by unannounced. There’s the weird 16-year-old son Ethan (Fred Hechinger, Eighth Grade), who might have wandered in straight from a late-90s teen slasher or, better yet, a Richard Kelly movie – “I like cat’s tongues,” he announces, the first of so many lines destined for group-chat legend.
Then there’s his mother, Jane – a wonderfully unhinged Julianne Moore – who arrives with wine, conversation, and the sudden urge to whip up a hilariously strange portrait of Anna and Punch, like a local white witch materialising to bless the loopy proceedings.
Perched in the titular window with a long lens trained on the neighbour’s house like Shia LaBeouf in Disturbia – or should that be Jimmy Stewart in Rear Window; history is so scrambled – Anna soon witnesses what she thinks is Jane’s violent murder.
Jennifer Jason Leigh shows up, Single White Female style, as another version of ‘Jane’, a pair of detectives (Brian Tyree Henry and Jeanine Serralles) investigates, and Jane’s husband, Alistair (a cartoonish Gary Oldman), blusters in to gaslight Anna, possibly to cover up a corporate conspiracy involving fraud and his missing assistant.
“See you at the block party,” Oldman bellows, plummy British accent and shock of Aryan hair in full flight – a nasty, amusing performance that might just single-handedly redeem Mank.
Has Alistair murdered his wife? Is Anna inventing all of these characters from her classic movie DVD collection? (“You’re Jane Russell!” she exclaims at one point.) Is Julianne Moore, strawberry blonde salon hair, skinny mum jeans and leather jacket, a cheugy elder? How many glasses of wine have I sunk?
The Woman in the Window barrels forward into an increasingly absurd, though not incoherent plot, with a silly and not exactly surprising conclusion that features the best climactic fight since J.Lo yanked out an assailant’s eyeball in The Boy Next Door.
But the plot, transposed in whatever shape from the best-selling novel by A.J. Finn, is almost besides the point.
Wright’s film is one that evokes the sensation of mental illness surprisingly well, leaning into the kind of lurid formalism and erratic performances that suggest a mind subject to the whims of haphazardly administered medication.
Like its protagonist, it’s a film constantly on the verge of falling apart, and camp in the truest sense – embracing the ridiculous but never mocking it, and threaded with an essential emotional sincerity.
In another era, Adams’s performance may have fallen under what was once uncharitably called ‘hagsploitation’: a trend whereby middle-aged and older actresses would lend their fading star personas to schlocky genre material, most famously embodied by Joan Crawford and Bette Davis in Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?
And The Woman in the Window sometimes recalls the similar work of queer filmmaker Curtis Harrington, whose hysterical early-70s thrillers (What’s the Matter With Helen? Whoever Slew Auntie Roo?) held a rich melancholy beneath their surface screeching.
Adams, whose de-glammed mousiness makes the theatrics all the more compelling, seems to get it, whether she’s rocking back and forth in a chair, accusing her doubters in compositions right out of Scooby Doo, or feverishly slurping from the tap like a cat – as though her and Punch had swapped places, and she were destined to watch her downward spiral from behind feline eyes.
Wright has landed in a sweet spot, too: his fancy camerawork has often felt gratuitous or in service of ostensibly classy material, but this is the director unmoored – not since Pan, another critically derided film that gleefully jumbled tone and style, has he been this interesting; stylistic excess suits the material, while the incongruous, faux-classy score (courtesy of Danny Elfman, no stranger to genre-bending) works perfectly against the woozy performances.
If anything, The Woman in the Window’s troubled production history fuels everything on screen: after all, what could be more fitting to a tale of unstable reality than its author being caught fabricating his identity, or that a film reportedly loathed by recently outed mogul-tyrant Scott Rudin might stumble into the world bruised and battered and bearing witness as a victim?
This is Hollywood’s id writ large – a film where barely-articulated emotions, suicidal ideation and corny sentiment commingle in all of their beautiful mess.
It won’t be to everyone’s taste, but for those who appreciate a little melodrama in their madness, this movie is for us.