Erstwhile ‘Gone Girl’ heiress ‘Woman in the Window’ never stood a chance

Images courtesy Netflix.

3/10 The Woman in the Window releases on Netflix May 14, 2021, almost a year to the day after its planned May 15, 2020 release date. The COVID-19 crisis both ruined its theatrical release and ruined the movie itself, which concerns a woman who cannot leave her house, but it may have been ruined well in advance.

104 W. 121st St. in Harlem, autumn- Anna Fox (Amy Adams), a psychologist who is so agoraphobic she faints from fright whenever she leaves her house, languishes, watching old movies and drinking too much wine. Obsessed with the outside world she cannot access, she becomes concerned with the Russell family that moves in across the street, befriending the wife, Jane (Julianne Moore), who saves her house from an egging on Halloween night. Soon after, Fox sees Jane Russell murdered through her window, but when she calls the police, she’s shocked to learn that Jane Russell (Jennifer Jason Leigh), an entirely different woman, is perfectly fine. She becomes suspicious of the husband, Alistair (Gary Oldman).

The path from cerebral, woman-centered mystery-thriller Oscarbate with an all-star cast in the distinct vein of Gone Girl and The Girl on the Train was necessarily a long one. COVID-19 was the second disaster to force The Woman in the Window to reschedule. After acquiring Fox, which had secured the rights to the film two years before the book it was based on even hit shelves, Disney pulled it from its Oct. 4, 2019 release due to poor test screenings. After re-editing and another delay because of the pandemic, Disney is distancing itself from the title more than it has from others it inherited from Fox, hawking it to Netflix instead of releasing it on either of its streaming services.

If a pandemic, an ownership change and poor test screenings weren’t enough, The Woman in the Window was also saddled with a behind-the-scenes gong show no one on-set could control. The book’s author, Daniel Mallory – pen name A.J. Finn – has been the subject of gossip that isn’t exactly disqualifying for a fiction writer, but makes him feel icky, and producer Scott Rudin was #cancelled in April for his long history of abuse – not leveraging his power for sex the way Hollywood power brokers have become known for, just for being a huge jerk at the office.

From its titlecard alone, The Woman in the Window has that awful stink of having been reworked in post-production. Weird editing choices abound, in some scenes much more than others – Valerio Bonelli is the only credited editor, I’m not sure if he did Fox’s cut, Disney’s cut or both. Lowlights are the beginning scene, one of the major twists and the off-putting, pulpy climax, which feels like it was shot for a completely different movie. Those are experienced guesses based on where the editing doesn’t complement the performances, but I don’t really have any idea what specific scenes got hit.

That seems like an OK thing to base guesses on because of the level of acting we’re dealing with here. Fox pulled a world-class cast together for The Woman in the Window, with two Oscars and 15 nominations, six Golden Globes and 21 nominations and four SAG awards and 22 nominations in the ensemble. They brought in Moore to do one scene and get murdered, Leigh to stand in a corner and look nervous and Anthony Mackie to play a voice on the phone, and we get multiple scenes between all-time greats in Oldman and Adams.

The fear with something like this is they gave it the old “I Am Legend” and tacked on an ending that didn’t fit the narrative at all, but it ends the same way as the novel. The film is highly impressionistic – the kind of complex, ambiguous storytelling I love to see, actually – and what probably happened is it was made a little too specifically for the kind of grown-up but still lurid audiences that made Gone Girl such a hit, and they were concerned younger audiences wouldn’t get it. This is a perspective-driven plot told by an unreliable narrator, and a lot of the talk around the reworking was about how complex the novel was, so that would make sense. The old adage is a movie that undergoes a change of direction in post-production probably wasn’t a masterpiece in the first place, and that’s probably the truth here.

The film is filled with references to Rear Window, which is a bare minimum of what would be expected, and to several other older movies. The book was initially written as a Hitchcock sendup.

The core problem, the real reason The Woman in the Window is being received so poorly, is the underlying story from the book is just not good. It’s one of those pulp mysteries that “keeps you guessing” by being really bad. The twists don’t make any sense. They rely on characters behaving wildly out of line with what’s established and revealing new information that viewers had no reason to guess, and they lend no thematic weight either to a story that seems to have no meaning overall. It’s the lazy writing trope that drives audiences up a wall about mysteries, both genre connoisseurs and casual readers alike. Unlike Gone Girl, there’s no concrete thematic connection to the outside world.

But of course, The Woman in the Window does have a concrete connection to the outside world, releasing now on the other side of the COVID-19 crisis. Fox begins the movie where many of us were at the start of the pandemic, traumatized at the shock of the sudden lifestyle changes and at least a little afraid to go outside at all. Fox is obsessed with the world she can no longer participate in, focusing on any reminder of it that reaches into her house, first a loud dog, then the Russells. The Woman in the Window, by its nature, destroys the line between severe mental illness and specific trauma most people have just experienced more than a year of.

The Woman in the Window is ambitious, perhaps too ambitious for its own good, and releases at a deeply unfortunate moment in history. I’d love to see the initial edit, or a further re-edit to make it more specifically the COVID reaction movie it can’t help but being. But as one of the last films inherited from 20th Century Fox, The Woman in the Window is more tied in with a different disaster – Disney’s ongoing monopolization of the film industry. This is the loss of an opportunity on the type of film that a lot of people think is about to suddenly disappear.

Leopold Knopp is a UNT graduate. If you liked this post, you can donate to Reel Entropy here. Like Reel Entropy on Facebook and reach out to me at reelentropy@gmail.com.

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