If you want to make a 21st century version of Rear Window, just make a proper remake. Be honest about the intellectual property you’re ripping off, and gain some name recognition value that will boost viewership in the process. Then change whatever you think is necessary to give it additional 21st century relevance. And make it at least as good as the existing 21st century update of Rear Window, 2007’s Disturbia, about a young man wearing a house arrest ankle monitor who spies on the suspicious activities of his neighbours.
The Woman in the Window fails in these and all other respects. This is some hot garbage right here. It takes one of our finest working actresses (Amy Adams) and runs her through a gauntlet of hoary suspense tropes, while making us forget why we thought she was one of our finest working actresses. Stranger yet, it features the talents of a top-flight director (Joe Wright), one of the most respected screenwriters/playwrights out there (Tracy Letts), a multi-Oscar-nominated cinematographer (Bruno Delbonnel) and composer (Danny Elfman), and the kind of Oscar-winning (Gary Oldman, Julianne Moore) and otherwise stalwart (Jennifer Jason Leigh, Anthony Mackie, Brian Tyree Henry) supporting cast most films could only dream of. And then while submitting almost a parodic version of a Hitchcock thriller, it manages also to rip off Vertigo in addition to Rear Window.
The voyeur du jour is not a man with broken legs, as in the original Rear Window, or a man with a spinal cord injury, as in its Christopher Reeve-starring 1998 remake, but a woman (Adams) crippled by agoraphobia. Anna Fox is a child psychologist who lives by herself in a large New York brownstone. She’s been separated from her husband (Mackie) as a result of her deeply debilitating mental issues, which require her to be heavily medicated. That she can’t stop mixing alcohol with her medication may contribute to the reasons for the separation, which has also left their eight-year-old daughter in his custody.
Confined to a permanent-bender bathrobe and her albeit quite large domicile, Anna has all her groceries delivered and never leaves the house. Her agoraphobia doesn’t contain any anthropophobia – fear of other people – as she houses a tenant in her basement (Wyatt Russell), who does odd jobs and has free access to the rest of the apartment. Anna’s got her own odd jobs that keep her busy, like following the lives of the people in the apartment building across the way, such as a prayer group, and a newly arrived family with a 15-year-old son.
Because drawing the curtains is still not an idea anyone has thought of nearly 70 years after Rear Window, Anna can see everything that occurs, especially since she also has binoculars and a camera that help her do that. She starts noticing strife with the newly arrived Russell family, and her professional instincts that something isn’t right kick in when the teenage boy (Fred Hechinger) delivers her a housewarming gift and seems skittish and potentially abused.
Because that’s how these things tend to go, she’s privy to the exact moments of heated argument and worse that she needs to be to develop theories about what may be happening to Jane Russell (Moore). Though since her own skittish nature has already resulted in false alarms to the police, her haze of prescription drug use mixed with alcohol diminishes her credibility as a witness, leaving serious questions about whether any of this is real, or just a projection of her diseased mind.
Forget Rear Window – if you’ve ever seen any movie with a potentially unreliable narrator whom nobody believes, you know how pretty much everything in The Woman in the Window is going to turn out. That wouldn’t be a problem if it were made with even a modicum of skill. But this movie is a hackish affair from the jump, with Wright showing no sense of how to hatch a narrative surprise, or avoid genre cliches that were outdated even when Hitchcock’s original was made. Wright’s got a history of respected period pieces under his belt, from Pride & Prejudice to Atonement to The Darkest Hour, and he leaves good craft on the cutting room floor with those films. When he tries to branch out, though, he can fail spectacularly, as with his Peter Pan adaptation Pan from 2015.
The Woman in the Window may even exceed the howling miscalculation of that film, though there’s plenty of blame to go around beyond Wright. It’s hard to believe that Letts, another Oscar acting nominee who also appears in a small role, could churn out a screenplay that is so utterly devoid of interesting nuance. Letts’ adaptation of A.J. Finn’s 2018 novel is barely above the overheated histrionics of a 1990s erotic thriller, so retrograde are its core components. If 21st century relevance were the goal of this film, it would be hard to figure out what was supposed to feel modern about it, except that the lead is in an interracial marriage, and the characters use mobile phones. (However, a sequence where two characters talk to each other from their landlines makes it seem perfectly 1950s.)
Adams deserves her own paragraph devoted to the shaky performance she gives here. While individual moments of depicting the character’s agoraphobia seem correctly modulated and perhaps even medically credible, everything else about her character’s journey through this film reeks of acting to the back row. This is at least in sync with the way Wright is hitting us over the head with his exposition. As one example, when Anna reads a news article about an unsolved murder that may be linked to her neighbours, not only does Wright show the headline, then focus in on the most dramatic individual words of that headline, but he also has Anna read the text out loud to herself.
Audiences aren’t dumb. Hitchcock trusted his viewers to pick up on the nuances, which is one of the things that made him a great storyteller. Wright and Letts share that instinct in their other work. So how did The Woman in the Window miss the mark so stupendously? Maybe the producers thought the same thing you thought when learning of the film’s extraordinary assemblage of talent: With so many gifted people involved, what could possibly go wrong? The answer is: So many things.
The Woman in the Window is currently streaming on Netflix.