By John H. Foote
(**) Two stars for Adams, nothing more. Streaming on Netflix
Never have I been a fan of the work of Alfred Hitchcock (gasp…scream…the horror).
Well retract that. Psycho (1960) was positively ground shaking and genre altering, a masterpiece of horror that dared to say monsters could exist in today’s world. Vampires, werewolves, mummies, zombies – the most terrifying creatures walking the earth has always been man. The monster in Psycho is a handsome, friendly young man who happens to dress as his dead mother and slaughter young women who stop in at his motel overnight. He dresses as his mother, slaughters the girls in the shower, then pushes their car with them in the trunk into a nearby swamp. Mommy issues? Oh boy, yes. In fact his interest in taxidermy led him to use his art on dear old Mom when she died, a fact we discover much to our horror as the film unwinds into madness at the end.
Obviously what the director learned while working in television taught him a great deal about filmmaking: shoot fast, shoot cheap, the story is everything, leave the actors alone, and black and white (for horror) rules.
His other films for me are too prepared (does that make sense), feel too inorganic and like a movie, false. People rave about Vertigo (1958) but it never did a thing for me, while Rear Window (1954) is lovely and claustrophobic but did anyone feel anything for the characters? Don’t even get me started on The Birds (1963), which has some striking images, but then the characters and birds make noise, not speak, just make noise. How can a film critic and movie historian not adore Hitchcock? Like this, I DO NOT ADORE THE WORK OF ALFRED HITCHCOCK….PERIOD.
I never understood the adoration of Hitchcock, any more than I got why people adored William Friedkin. After directing The Boys in the Band (1970), The French Connection (1971), for which he won the Academy Award as Best Director, and The Exorcist (1973), Friedkin remade the French classic The Wages of Fear (1953), telling the director of that film to his face he was going to remake it. Entitled Sorcerer (1977) the film led the director to near ruin, though in hindsight is a decent movie with startlingly great cinematography and exceptional tension. After that? Not much. He was a director with an ego that outweighed his talent.
Two or more years after it was finished and its initial premiere was announced, The Woman in the Window finally makes its way to Netflix and is the film most like a Hitchcock film I have seen in recent years. Every shot feels like Hitchcock, every moment that builds to a false climax has Hitchcock’s stamp all over it, the trouble being it was not directed by him, but by Joe Wright, normally a gifted and fine director.
You can feel the moment the film goes off the rails, you see it happening and want to scream, “NO DON’T DO IT … AMY IS THE ZONE … LET HER CARRY THE FILM” but they do it as the script demands. The first 50 or so minutes are very powerful with Amy Adams superb as Anna Fox, a woman who is intensely agoraphobic, unable to leave her apartment, a massive sprawling thing spread over three or four floors in New York City. The place feels so huge she must have rooms she does even know about herself. No good can come of that, yet despite the size, she hears every noise within the place. A child psychologist (though we never see her working), she talks on the phone with her husband and child, who do not live with her. She spends her days consuming copious amounts of wine, which with all the meds she is taking cannot be good. Anna must have exceptional hearing to hear everything she hears in the apartment, every creak, every door open, even a scream across the street behind walls.
Her only visitors are her shrink, and the very strange young man who has moved in across the street, and his oddball mom. There is something off about him in the early scenes, just as there was something very strange about Norman Bates in Psycho (1960). His mother, portrayed as an artist of some kind by an edgy Julianne Moore seemingly still in Magnolia (1999), but she is not who she seems or claims to be.
When Anna witnesses a murder across the street (does no one close their curtains in New York City?) she calls the police and the crime is investigated. Her neighbor, Mr. Russell (Gary Oldman), is quite the guy, intimidating, violent, a born red herring if there ever was one. If the criminal is this guy, then wwwaaayyy too obvious gang. His wife, the criminally under used Jennifer Jason Leigh, stands around and smiles an uneasy smile a lot, never really getting into the film.
SPOILER!!! HUGE SPOILER!!!
When the police look into the crime, they discover that Anna is not talking to her husband and child at all, they were both killed in a car accident a short time for which she was responsible in more ways than one. Cheating on her husband, she drove off a country road while trying to retrieve the cell phone on which her lover was calling. So now being a bit of a nut, or at least delusional, how reliable is Anna’s testimony? Is she seeing what she says she is seeing? Hearing the sounds she thinks she hears? The police go away frustrated at having their time wasted, and the Russells (Oldman and Leigh) accept her apology in a snotty way and return to their home.
Anna decides the only thing to do is kill herself and leave a lengthy tape as to why and whatever proof she thinks she might have. Suicide interruptus though!
Absolutely OUT OF THE BLUE, one of the characters (can you guess?) shows up in her house with a knife in full psycho mode and all hell breaks loose.
Despite a solid performance from Adams, (when is she nothing less?) the film absolutely falls apart after the discovery about her family. One, she becomes a little less likable for the scene in the car. Two, there are so many reasons given earlier as to why she might be hallucinating – the booze, the drugs, mixing the booze with the drugs, the intense loneliness – in many ways this is the perfect film for the COVID generation. Has being isolated driven her mad? There are just so many questions and no answers. What drives the killer to attack, finally and why her? How do some obvious villains survive?
Joe Wright has never stepped this far wrong over the course of his career; he is often a brilliant director. From Pride and Prejudice (2005) to Atonement (2007) through to Darkest Hour (2017) with Gary Oldman’s Oscar winning performance, Wright has become one of the finest and most reliable directors in modern film. His version of Anna Karenina (2013) was simply extraordinary, bold and brilliant in every way, the finest adaptation of the book to the screen.
He plays it safe here, setting us up for a twist ending I saw the moment the character came on screen. There is nothing shocking about where this film goes. If you were building a film like a puzzle, you might say it all fits together.
Adams is wonderful for the first hour before the script betrays her and she becomes a resourceful woman in distress, hunted to be killed. If you ever decide to watch the film again, watch close and see how she discovers without knowing everything she needs to know about the house to defend herself. Since her wonderful work in Junebug (2005), which she followed with a stunning performance in Enchanted (2007) for which she should have been nominated for an Oscar, she has built a steady array of brilliant performances. Superb performances in such films as Sunshine Cleaning (2006), Miss Pettigrew for a Day (2008), Doubt (2008), The Fighter (2010), On the Road (2010), The Master (2012), Her (2013), American Hustle (2013), Trouble with the Curve (2014), Arrival (2016) which is I think the finest work of her career, Vice (2018) and recently Hillbilly Elegy (2020) have made Adams one of the most sought after, acclaimed and awarded actresses in recent film.
Gary Oldman is intensely frightening but has so little to do it is humiliating for him. Hire him to grab Adams and threaten her? Over 100 other actors who would have been just as imposing and less expensive? And do not hire Gary Oldman, Jennifer Jason Leigh and give them so little to do.
Julianne Moore seems to have walked off the set of Magnolia (1999) over 20 years ago and onto this one as a jacked-up nut job making friends with Anna. Again, no rhyme or reason.
Fred Hechinger is all tics and oddities as Ethan, the son of the couple across the street who Anna believes is being abused. He telegraphs his performance from the moment he appears in the film, there is no mystery to him, nor surprise.
John H. Foote is a well-recognized Canadian film critic/historian who has been an active critic for 30 years. His deep love for the movies began at a very young age. He began his career as co-host of the popular TV show Reel to Real where he remained for nine years. While on TV he began dabbling in education, eventually ascending to Director of the Toronto Film School, where he also taught film history. After leaving the college to care for his wife, he returned to teaching at Humber College where he taught both Film History and Method Acting Theory. John has written two books: “Clint Eastwood – Evolution of a Filmmaker” and the upcoming “Spielberg – American Film Visionary”. He is currently working on two books, one about the films of the seventies and another on the films of Martin Scorsese. Through his career he has worked in TV, radio, print and the web. John has interviewed everyone in the industry (more than 300 interviews) except Jack Nicholson, he says sadly. Highlights include Martin Scorsese, Tom Cruise, Meryl Streep Robert Duvall, Jane Fonda, Francis Ford Coppola and Kathryn Bigelow.