The art of casting a film doesn’t always get the appreciation it deserves. To be fair, that’s in part because when done right it aids a film in a somewhat silent manner — when everything is clicking just right a film’s cast becomes just one element woven into a beautiful tapestry. Poor casting, though, can stand out like a cracked and swollen thumb. Not much clicks just right in The Woman in the Window, but its casting? That’s the film’s single stroke of genius.
Anna Fox (Amy Adams) is a child psychiatrist with issues of her own. She’s agoraphobic, riddled with anxiety strong enough to prevent her from being able to venture outside of her house, and as with most doctors, she doesn’t make the best patient. Her psychiatrist, Dr. Landy (Tracy Letts, who also wrote the film), has changed her medication and warned her about mixing them with alcohol, but Anna’s wine intake grows all the same as she finds comfort talking to her estranged husband (Anthony Mackie) and their daughter over Skype. Anna’s quiet paranoias kick in when a new family moves in across the street — a friendly woman named Jane (Julianne Moore), her intense husband Alistair (Gary Oldman), and their timid son Ethan (Fred Hechinger) — and they erupt when she witnesses Jane being murdered.
Of course, no one believes her. From the sympathetic detective (Brian Tyree Henry) to Anna’s basement tenant (Wyatt Russell), no one can quite buy her story — a disbelief fueled by the presence of Alistair’s wife, Jane (Jennifer Jason Leigh).
As with its source novel by A.J. Finn, The Woman in the Window owes its genesis to Alfred Hitchcock and Cornell Woolrich, and it’s not alone in that inspiration. Films as diverse as Body Double (1984), Abominable (2006), and Disturbia (2007) have used the premise to varying degrees of effect. The difference, though, is that those films packed their story with more than just the setup of someone witnessing something out their window only to be met with disbelief. From voyeurism to bigfoot, they offer more than one thing, but that’s pretty much all viewers get here. Joe Wright’s direction adds little to the mix as well with a film that feels both flat and safe in its presentation (outside of one lonely optical splash).
Letts’ screenplay succeeds at marking Anna as an untrustworthy protagonist which in turn makes her difficult to sympathize with at first. It’s less successful, however, at lifting her and viewers out of that hole. Her accusations are wild and scattershot, and while the film’s theme is intended to be one of trusting and listening to people in distress it’s difficult to blame those around her for dismissing Anna’s claims. The third-act shift towards the truth does so with a sharply unexpected turn reminiscent of a certain thriller from 1996, but neither it nor Anna’s redemption can quite find their way to feeling authentic. A muddled focus on Anna’s situation is paired with a one-note effort to paint everyone else as guilty, and in addition to that balance feeling inadequate it also feels ripe for wilder antics than what we eventually get here.
So where does all of that leave The Woman in the Window? Unfortunately, for both the film and Adams (a fantastic talent who can’t seem to catch a break these days), it’s little more than an easily forgettable, thrill-free thriller… with some impeccable casting choices.
Watch enough mystery/thriller movies and it can sometimes become far too easy to identify the killer or foresee a reveal based almost solely on the cast. Is a seemingly unimportant character played by a high-profile actor? Is an actor best-known for playing villainous roles holding a neon sign proclaiming “I’m bad!” in every scene? Is a big-name actor appearing in a very small role? Is Gary Oldman in the movie? The Woman in the Window has enough red herrings for three movies, but rather than come from smart, twisty writing they exist strictly due to the cast.
Both Oldman and Russell play their characters as overly aggressive and quick-to-agitate men. Something is clearly off about Moore’s Jane, and that’s even before you discover she might not actually even be Jane. This wouldn’t be the first time Leigh played someone stepping into someone else’s shoes. Surely Mackie’s role won’t be limited to video chats. Hell, even Letts’ early appearance as a drug-pushing psychiatrist leaves him a suspect. There’s a lot of potential here for all manner of conspiracy, gaslighting, and beyond, but it’s the casting that does the heavy lifting and will leave you guessing.
“Don’t go looking into other people’s houses,” says someone to Anna, and it’s good advice that absolutely none of us heed which in turn makes for a premise we’ve seen before and will undoubtedly see again. The Woman in the Window stumbles with its thrills and protagonist, but the ultimate message on the importance of forgiveness, well that is handled a bit sloppily too, but it’s no less important for it. If it’s agoraphobic-focused thrills you’re after, though, you’d be smarter to seek out 1995’s Copycat or 2015’s Intruders. But if you’re happy being distracted by a strong cast then Netflix’s latest has you covered.