For those just tuning in, I hate Pan. To date, I still despise that movie more than any other I’ve ever reviewed on this blog. It was such a wretched and uninspired insult to J.M. Barrie’s tale and the audience’s intelligence that it was enough to make me swear off Joe Wright movies forever. But then I found this.
“I had just made this $100 million flop. It was a dark, difficult time. I didn’t know if I was going to make any more movies,” [Wright] admitted. “I didn’t know that I wanted to make movies anymore, to be honest.”
Well, okay then. If Joe Wright has learned his lesson and he regrets making the movie as much as I regret sitting through it, I’m happy to accept the apology and move on.
Wright’s latest is The Woman in the Window, with an all-star cast comprised by the likes of Amy Adams, Gary Oldman, Anthony Mackie, Wyatt Russell, Brian Tyree Henry, Julianne Moore, Jennifer Jason Leigh, and even screenwriter Tracy Letts himself in a supporting role. Unfortunately, this was also one of the last movies made under 20th Century Fox. When the new overlords at Disney came in, they demanded that the film be reworked.
Tony Gilroy was brought in for some uncredited script rewrites, and reshoots were ordered. Naturally, this meant that the initial October 2019 release date had to be postponed. The film was supposed to be rescheduled for sometime in 2020, until COVID happened. The film’s release was cancelled entirely, and the distribution rights were eventually sold to Netflix, who finally got the film out the door.
(Side note: This flies in the face of earlier reporting for The New Mutants. At the time, part of the stated rationale for the movie’s boneheaded rollout was Disney’s contractual obligation to provide a theatrical release to whatever movies Fox had completed or in production. Why that apparently didn’t apply to this picture is beyond me.)
So did the movie turn out to be any good? If it didn’t, do we blame Wright, COVID, the studio fuckery, or all of the above? Well, let’s see what we’ve got.
Dr. Anna Fox (Amy Adams) is an erstwhile child psychologist with no life outside of her house, though she doesn’t really seem to have much of a life inside of her house, either. The agoraphobia is apparently a recent development, as we learn in dialogue that she hasn’t left her house in ten months. Dr. Karl Landy (Tracy Letts) is on hand as Anna’s psychiatrist, graciously making house calls to monitor her condition and advise the Powers That Be as to whether or not she should have a career in medicine anymore. There’s also the matter of David (Wyatt Russell), an aspiring musician who works as a handyman to pay the rent. He’s rented out Anna’s basement, and he helps around the house on occasion.
As for Anthony Mackie, he’s on hand to play Anna’s estranged husband. He moved away some time ago, and their daughter (played by Mariah Bozeman) went with him, but they still keep in touch with Anna on a regular basis. That’s Anna’s story and she’s sticking to it.
Oh, and did I mention that the film opens on Halloween? Talk about an agoraphobe’s worst nightmare.
Anyway, Anna passes most of her time watching the neighbors. The plot kicks off with the arrival of the Russell family across the street, a wealthy banking family who had to move out from Boston for unclear reasons. We meet Ethan Russell (Fred Hechinger), a sweet and harmless teenage boy who’s clearly not coping well with the move; and we also meet Jane Russell (Julianne Moore), a charming and effortlessly social woman. And these two are the first guests that Anna has welcomed into her home in quite some time, which is kind of a big deal.
But then there’s the matter of Alistair Russell (Gary Oldman). His wife and son tend to talk about him in hushed tones, giving him the impression of an abusive and potentially dangerous family man. So naturally, when Anna witnesses Jane getting brutally murdered, she tells anyone who will listen that Alistair did it. Except, of course, that Anna is a nervous paranoid shut-in who mixes her anxiety meds with her alcohol and she can’t prove anything. Also, Jane Russell is apparently still alive and now she’s being played by Jennifer Jason Leigh.
Thus we have our murder mystery by way of a psychological thriller.
As with any murder mystery, the first rule is that everyone is a liar. Every character has something to hide, and it’s genuinely fun to watch the cast try and bluff and bluster their way through the plot. Every last actor is incredible, each one turning in extraordinary work of maintaining some semblance of a reasonable facade in defense of some secret they’re keeping.
I absolutely love Danny Elfman’s score. As with his more recent works, the score here has a kind of creepy and demented feel that meshes beautifully with the story and genre. In fact, it really is quite remarkable what Joe Wright can do when he sits down to tell a more grounded story without the more heightened fantasy elements getting in the way. (see also: The pointless fairy tale garnishes on Hanna, the baffling theatre motif on Anna Karenina, the whole goddamn entirety of Pan, etc.)
The first half is quite solid. I got a genuine kick out of watching Anna find her first hint of a normal social life, finally meeting neighbors she was comfortable with to the point where she could welcome them into her home. But then they apparently either die or turn against her, and she’s scrambling for loose ends and even Anna herself can’t really trust her mental state. It’s all good stuff, superbly delivered.
But then we get to the back half. Yes, this is sadly one of those cases in which the payoffs are vastly less satisfying than the setups.
A prime example comes with the themes of parenthood. The relationship between children and parents is a theme raised early on, and in a nicely poignant way. Trouble is, it never quite connects with the narrative in a symbiotic way and thus the theme is sadly never developed into anything worthwhile.
In fact, Anna gets a huge overblown monologue at the halfway point that pretty much boils down to “Won’t somebody think of the children?!” And I’m pretty sure that’s the exact moment where the film jumps the shark.
What’s even worse is the big reveal, when we finally learn what happened to Moore’s character. Without getting too deep into spoilers, it’s another one of those reprehensible cases that plays into harmful and villainous stereotypes about mental illness. One of those unfortunate cases where the killer has no motivation other than “evil” and “crazy”.
It’s cliche, it’s tasteless, it’s offensive, and it’s the worst possible choice that could’ve been made for this particular movie. In fact, when you put the film’s treatment of mental illness together with how the film treats child abuse, the two themes actually cancel each other out. Disgraceful.
It’s perhaps worth mentioning that these hackneyed plot developments were grandfathered in by the A.J. Finn novel that the film was based on. That would be the same A.J. Finn — a pseudonym for Dan Mallory — who was recently disgraced for lying about his academic accomplishments, his family history, his medical history, and God knows what else, in addition to his numerous allegations of plagiarism. For his part, Mallory responded to the controversies by explaining that this all came about because of his bipolar disorder.
So what we’ve got here is a book in which mental illness is used as the reason for why someone is driven to homicide, written by a man who uses mental illness as an excuse for pathological deceit and plagiarism… and both are dignified with a mainstream star-studded film adaptation. And just like that, the whole movie is tainted.
Sure, Amy Adams is putting her heart and soul into portraying the deep mental/emotional pain of her character, showing the audience how her mental illness and substance abuse are eating away at her from the inside out, gradually destroying whatever credibility she has with the people around her and even with herself. In fact, I’m reminded of when Adams handled similar material to deeply moving effect in Hillbilly Elegy, and as much as I hate to say it, that fucking movie had a moral high ground over this one. I mean, say what you will about J.D. Vance, at least he’s not a plagiarist and a pathological liar who pleads insanity to get away with something!
The Woman in the Window blows. Wright directs the film well enough and all the actors are amazing to watch, but the movie only gets worse with every big reveal and every mishandled theme. By the time we finally get to the climax, the whole movie has been exposed as a mindless, heartless, pointless, utterly tasteless heap of uninspired trash. Shame on the filmmakers for looking at this tin-eared, cliched, ludicrous, and outright offensive story and using it as the basis for a major motion picture. Shame on everyone involved who decided that this story with that reveal was a viable means of exploring such potent and incendiary topics as child abuse and mental illness.
Fuck this movie. Don’t even bother.