Hello, everyone! I recently read a piece in the New Yorker about Dan Mallory, the real name of A.J Finn, who pseudonymously wrote the bestselling novel The Woman in the Window. According to the exposé, Mallory is something of a Mr. Ripley type, whose publishing career has been plagued by outrageous lies of family trauma, injury, and death, and whose reputation for deception is so infamous that he had to use a pen name to get The Woman in the Window published. Everyone who has met Mallory knows that he is a faker, someone who will lie, imitate, or embellish to give his audience what they want, regardless if he has the substance to back it up. Mallory’s novel and its movie adaption reeks of this kind of mimicry. It’s a beautiful movie on the surface, but the plot is melodramatic, hackneyed, and clearly lifted from earlier thrillers, most notably the Hitchcock classic Rear Window. Imitation may be the highest form of flattery, but a certain amount of good faith is required to prevent mimicry from feeling like a cheap knock-off.
Synopsis: After a traumatic event, child psychologist Anna Fox becomes agoraphobic and lives as a recluse in her lonely Manhattan brownstone. Separated from her husband, she talks to him and her daughter by phone, and has limited contact with her tenant David. Overly medicated and often drunk, Anna spends her time watching old movies and spying on her neighbors. When a new family, the Russells, move in to the house across the street, Anna becomes curious about their lives and starts watching them through her window. She meets the son, Ethan, who she believes is being abused by his controlling father, and has a drink one night with his mother Jane. When Anna sees a violent event occur at the Russell’s house, she tries to contact the police, but no one believes her. Determined to prove the existence of a crime, Anna must confront her debilitating phobia and get to the truth behind what she saw from her window.
My thoughts: I haven’t read the original book, but from the first few moments of this movie, I knew I had seen something like it before. The reclusive woman with a dark past, excessive alcohol and drug consumption, blackouts and missing moments of time, a violent crime that she may or may not have seen (but definitely did, because what’s the point otherwise?), psychopathic men with little motivation for crime besides making the plot move, etc, etc. If that sounds familiar, it’s because it’s an amalgamation of tropes that have been done to death, in classic films like Rear Window, Vertigo, and Dial M for Murder (to name a few), in thrillers like Copycat, and in novels like The Girl on the Train and Before I Go To Sleep. This story has been done numerous times, and The Woman In The Window adds nothing of value to the genre. Worse, it feels like a calculation, a film manufactured to check as many boxes as possible in the woman’s psychological thriller genre without putting in any of the emotion necessary to make it compelling.
When it comes to the aesthetics, The Woman In The Window excels. Directed by Joe Wright, the man behind gorgeous films like Atonement and Anna Karenina, the film uses vibrant set design and ominous shadows to create a nightmare in Anna Fox’s Manhattan apartment. Forced to shoot mostly in one location, Wright inventively shakes up the monotony of the set by splicing in jarring sequences of Anna’s drugged out trances. Vintage black-and-white movies, dripping water, and lush colors make some of the movie feel like a disorienting LSD trip. I have to give Wright major props for making such a static movie feel as exciting as this one does. He’s a true artist when it comes to set design, costuming, and color palette, and without his eyes behind this, I’m sure the movie would have been as visually bland as The Girl on the Train adaptation.
That said, the aesthetics are all that this movie has going for it. From the clunky dialogue, to the erratic pacing, to the histrionic acting, this movie looks like a $30 million film and sounds like a Lifetime made for TV special. Knowing what Joe Wright can do with a good script, or even with just a good story, I have to place all the blame for this stinker of a movie on the author Dan Mallory. You can just tell that he wrote this novel because he wanted a piece of that sweet sweet woman’s lit money. According to the New Yorker piece, he basically did just that. He even chose the protagonist’s name because it was “easy to pronounce in many languages.” From the beginning, Mallory wrote this novel with the intention for it be sold internationally and made into a movie. And while there’s nothing wrong with writing so self-consciously, it’s impossible to do that and still avoid feeling artificial. Consequently, this movie feels about as organic as a piece of plastic.
The plot of this movie makes little sense. Usually in a movie, the plot happens because of actions that the characters take, but in this movie, Anna is drawn into the plot because all of the supporting characters keep showing up at her house. First Ethan the weird son shows up at her house, and even though in the book he is apparently supposed to seem quiet and sympathetic, the actor playing him notched up the social awkwardness to level 100, so much so that he seemed developmentally delayed. After Ethan randomly comes over and immediately develops an intimate bond with Anna, his mother comes over without invitation, too, and Anna develops a quick bond with her. Then the father comes over, all in one day, and now Anna knows everyone in the Russell family just enough to decide that Alistair Russell is abusing his son Ethan and his wife Jane, and that it’s up to her to insert herself in the family drama and put an end to it.
There could have been some insightful commentary about how a woman like Anna would rather live vicariously through the family dynamics of others than examine her own tragic past, but if that was present in the book, it’s completely absent in the movie. Anna is the Self-Destructive Woman™, famous for starring in pretty much every woman’s psychological thriller ever made, and thus needs no further characterization. She is constantly being yelled at by men, gaslighted by men, and forced to explain to men that she is more than just a drunk floozy with a sieve instead of a brain. The fact this is a trope now says a lot about the state of woman’s lit, mainly that women hate themselves, but at least when a woman writes the book, it feels more self reflective than when a guy like Dan Mallory writes it.
If Anna’s characterization feels like it was constructed from bits and pieces of other novels, then the plot beats of this movie feel even more convoluted. We get some hidden identity à la Vertigo, some nocturnal trespassing à la Rear Window, and a fight-to-the-death à la The Girl on the Train. The killer is revealed, their motivation makes zero sense, and when the killer monologues about the inciting crime that Anna saw from her window, it also doesn’t make much sense. Surprisingly, this movie was reshot to be less confusing than the original iteration, which really makes me wonder how byzantine the first movie was to make this version seem less perplexing by comparison. Overall, the artifice and intentionality behind this movie distracts from the movie itself. You feel like you’re watching a genre film, and you should never feel like you’re watching a movie at all.
Amy Adams tries her best to bring complexity to the role of Anna Fox, and supporting actors bluster around in an attempt to make the movie dramatic, but they can’t save the movie from itself. At its core, The Woman In The Window has no identity. It’s a mashup of better movies and better books, taped together by a man who’s known for taking the stories and identities of others to make his own life seem more interesting. After reading the New Yorker piece and watching the movie, the whole affair left a bad taste in my mouth. The fact that this movie got made despite the source material’s blatant unoriginality show that the woman’s psychological thriller genre needs a refresh. Once the cash hungry copycats emerge, it’s time to change directions.