' ' Cinema Romantico: The Woman in the Window

Monday, June 07, 2021

The Woman in the Window

Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Tracy Letts adapted “The Woman in the Window” as gamely as the material permits, evinced in making his own character nothing more than a delivery device for exposition, which feels like an inside joke with just himself. Still, as I watched the Netflix-distributed movie, I couldn’t help thinking the real writer for this job was Charlie Kaufman. Well, maybe Charlie Kaufman and his twin brother Donald. Donald, of course, is not real, invented by Charlie when he was pulling off the impossible: adapting Susan Orlean’s nonfiction book “The Orchid Thief” for the big screen. The movie he wrote was not really an adaptation at all but an exploration of his own neuroses through the process of trying to adapt the book, sending up Hollywood confection along the way. “The Woman in the Window”, meanwhile, a New York Times bestseller, was written by A.J. Finn, who is really Daniel Mallory, who was exposed in a 2019 New Yorker article as a pathological liar, having fabricated considerable aspects of his life, including the deaths of his mother and brother, both of whom are alive and well. Through that lens, it’s hard not to read the reality-bending storyline of “The Woman in the Window” as Mallory, or Finn, wrestling with internal demons, which Kaufman might have brought to the surface through Finn, or Mallory’s, protagonist, Anna Fox (Amy Adams), an agoraphobe trapped in a Manhattan brownstone. Alas, if “The Woman in the Window” initially suggests one woman’s psychological break, it is destined to be undone by what inevitably awaits: the book’s plot. Letts nor director Joe Wright have the temerity to change this plot and I can only Kaufman would have dismantled it and idiosyncratically put it back together.

Anna being unwell is evident right away, and not so much in conversations with her therapist but in calls with her ex-husband (Anthony Mackie), which are staged and spoken with such artificiality that you can sense Wright leaning so hard into the implausibility that he’s not so much trying to fool you as to make the obvious go down like grotesque meds with a milkshake. After being paid a visit by her new neighbor across the street, Jane Russell (Julianne Moore), Anna witnesses, or thinks she does, from her window, Jane being murdered by husband Alistair (Gary Oldman). Anna summons the police, who suspect her medication is playing tricks, evinced in the appearance of Jane Russell...but now played by Jennifer Jason Leigh, not Julianne Moore, ye gods. Even Ethan (Fred Hechinger), Alistair’s son, with whom Anna briefly bonds, says, yes, this is his real mother, though Hechinger’s voice, like Mackie’s, lets you know something’s up. This all sound a little “Rear Window”-ish, of course, and Wright knows it, which is why Hitchcock’s movie is briefly glimpsed on Anna’s television, as is Otto Preminger’s “Laura”, a hallucinatory murder mystery also bearing not-so-eerie similarities to “The Woman in the Window. Such cues abound, in the “Psycho”-like spiral staircase and the name Jane Russell (in the title “The Woman in the Window”!), as if Anna has virtually ensconced herself in old cinema. 

Anna’s apartment might be in Manhattan, but Wright makes virtually no attempt to distinguish the setting. The brownstone’s spaciousness, in fact, just as liable to show Anna in lonely long shots through narrow hallways as in intense close-ups, evokes Wright’s 2012 version of “Anna Karenina”, wherein he literally showed life as something akin to a stage. This version of Anna seems to be playing the leading role of a movie of her own direction in her own mind. And Adams plays it entirely straight. In scenes where her neighbors and police gather in her flat, looking at her with alternating frustration and pity, Adams’s pure unwavering intensity works to weird effect. If so much of the movie seems to take place within her mind, here we are momentarily placed outside of it, looking at her as they look at her, and it’s difficult not to conclude she is off her rocker. 

The problem, however, is what “The Woman in the Window” has up its sleeve. Mallory, or Finn, has said he deliberately wrote the book as a mashup of crime thriller tropes and the further the movie goes, the more clear that becomes, especially once it delineates the line between the truth and fiction rather than continuing to blur them. The two-dimensional roles of Alistair and Ethan and Anna’s basement neighbor David (Wyatt Russell), not to mention the no dimension role of Leigh’s Jane Russell, are exposed as mere pawns in the ongoing murder mystery, waiting to be unmasked as red herrings or at fault, the actors mostly stranded here with little idea of what to do except play to the most obvious part of their established archetype.  

Only Moore meets Adams on her level, playing the role of faux-Jane Russell with a waggish looseness suggesting she is merely a phantasm of Anna’s. Weirdly, the movie I most thought of while watching “The Woman in the Window” wasn’t anything from the Golden Age but Moore’s “The Forgotten”, a unremembered 2004 psychological thriller. “The most likely hypothesis,” wrote Roger Ebert of Moore’s character, “is that (she) is crazy and everybody else is right. But who would make a movie about a mother discovering her beloved child was imaginary? That would be too sad, too tragic, and, for that matter, too thought-provoking and artistically challenging, and might even make a good movie.” Indeed, once Anna is convinced by others that she is wrong and they are right, you know she’s been right all along, which I suppose qualifies as a spoiler though, trust me, knowing the ending of “The Woman in the Window” beforehand can’t possibly be more disappointing than discovering it naturally. Like “The Forgotten”, “The Woman in the Window” has nothing but tedious resolution masquerading as madness, one of those accidentally ironic movies that in growing more and more shocking merely becomes exhaustingly unsurprising. 

No comments: