The Woman in the Window is one of those unusual films, like A Quiet Place Part II, that exists somewhere between the pre-pandemic and pandemic worlds. The novel it was based on, by A.J. Finn, was released at the start of 2018, while production on the film wrapped by October 2019, just before the COVID virus emerged. Yet the narrative and aesthetic speaks so uncannily to the concerns of the pandemic that it feels like it was shot at the height of lockdown, since it’s essentially a lockdown drama, revolving around a traumatised woman, Dr. Anna Fox, played by Amy Adams, who’s agoraphobic, confined to her Manhattan home.
While Tracy Letts’ screenplay and Joe Wright’s direction precede the pandemic, you have to wonder whether the post-production decisions were inflected through the COVID-19 outbreak, especially since the original theatrical run was cancelled, and the film severely re-edited, in response to audience feedback. This second edit wasn’t completed until May 2020, when the virus had a firm foothold in the United States – firm enough to make The Woman in the Window one of a handful of films that were perpetually delayed during 2020, until it was released earlier this year on Netflix, which in many ways feels like its most natural venue.
In essence, or in retrospect, this is Rear Window remade as a pandemic text, even if COVID-19 wasn’t the faintest possibility when Finn wrote his novel. All the characters are socially distanced – we rarely see more than three people in the same space – while Wright’s skill as a director lies partly in bringing a theatrical containment to his cinematic subjects. Anna, Adams’ character, spends her whole life in an enormous brownstone, after having suffered some mysterious trauma. Various figures flit in and out of her daily routine, such as David Winter, her basement tenant, played by Wyatt Russell, but the story only gets going when she meets “Jane Russell,” a woman who resides across the street, played by Julianne Moore.
No sooner has Anna had drinks with Jane than she sees her being murdered through her second-storey window, by her husband Alistair, played by Gary Oldman. However, when Anna calls the police, Alistair presents her with the “real” Jane Russell, played by Jennifer Jason Leigh. Nobody, including Alistair and Jane’s son Ethan, played by Fred Hechinger, has any memory of the Jane that Anna met. In time, and after discussing the situation with her therapist, played by Tracy Letts, Anna decides that her whole encounter was Jane was merely a hallucination brought on by a sudden shift in medication – although nothing is as it seems.
Although this sounds like a pretty compelling narrative – and probably is in the novel – most of the film is devoted to evoking Anna’s state of mind and psychological lifeworld. Her towering brownstone fuses suburban and high-rise pandemic experiences, not unlike the house in M. Night Shyamalan’s Servant, which dropped around the same time that The Woman in the Window was supposed to be released in theatres. All the coordinates of Anna’s home are suburban, exuding routines that have fallen into disarray, but because the building is four storeys, she’s always acutely aware of other dwellings at the same eye level. Random people assume they know her because they’re in a direct sightline with her window, and she assumes the same, building a closer rapport with people across the street than with than her own tenant, David, who scurries in and out of the basement, with barely any announcement.
Within this odd space, characters appear and emerge quite suddenly, like faces joining or leaving a Zoom call. All Amy’s encounters are somewhat contrived, somewhat implausible, like fractured figments of her imagination, making it hard to tell (and hard for her to tell) what’s real and what’s imagined. People seem to drift in and out of her consciousness, refracting her own feelings back to her – often by immediately and incongruously oversharing, treating her as their therapist, or else eliciting secrets she would only ever share with her therapist. The first scene is actually a therapy session, and the rest of the film feels poised in the moments just following therapy, overwhelmed by a jumble of newly articulated emotions.
In other words, this is perhaps the first pandemic film about socially isolating alone – one of the most common pandemic experiences, and yet one of the least represented. For those isolating alone, any talk is therapeutic, so there’s no real distinction, in the script, between dialogue and therapy – especially because Anna herself is a therapist, meaning she’s always replaying past sessions in her mind, or imaging herself (and others) in future sessions. This distended and provisional therapy space has become one of the defining features of the pandemic – most recently in the reboot of HBO’s In Treatment – but it doesn’t feel like a positive thing here, as Anna fuses patient and therapist into a interminable inner monologue.
That monologue makes it hard to differentiate Anna from her house, or the spaces in the film from her perceptions – especially once she has a shift in medication halfway through the story. It’s during this period that she witnesses Jane’s (supposed) murder, which thereby becomes synonymous with the disorientation of lockdown. Jane’s murder is the point at which lockdown becomes truly unbearable – and so, as we move into the second act, and the main mystery, the film becomes more abstract as well, until the story is almost indiscernible.
Most of the action, in this section, takes place between sleeping and waking in front of the television – between falling asleep with a movie on, and waking up mid-scene with another movie playing. Anna’s television is always on, but there’s no active viewing, which is perhaps how this second act of the film itself is best watched too. Wright opts for compositions with large images blurred or distorted in the foreground, evoking the experience of falling asleep (or waking up) directly in front of your laptop, head resting on the keyboard. These weird moments of deep focus feel like incitements to pandemic-style viewing, tacit hints that the film will be most resonant if we put it on in the background, as an ambient pandemic texture.
This ties in with the film’s driving question – how much curiosity is healthy during lockdown? On the one hand, as Anna realises, too much curiosity can easily tip over into paranoia. Yet her therapist also assures her that curiosity is a sign that depression is gradually abating. Anna spends most of the film trying to figure out if her curiosity about Jane is good curiosity, and Wright seems ambivalent in the same way about the film itself. It’s hard to know how curious we’re meant to be about the mystery here – just as it’s hard to gauge whether this film is made for an audience who want genuine intrigue, or an audience who already know the denouement from the novel, and can afford to tune out for long stretches of time as a result.
Certainly, there’s very little of the spatial curiosity that you might expect from a psychological thriller that takes place in one location. Although we spend the entire film in Anna’s house, we never get any real sense of the layout (which seems to be an important part of the novel) beyond the eerie dream sequences that emerge when she falls asleep in front of the television. For The Woman in the Window is acutely haunted by the fate of film and television during lockdown – afraid that lockdown will relegate even the newest releases to a “classic” outdated mode. In that sense, the film allegorises its own production, presenting a lockdown so interminable that new releases can no longer exist as discrete events, and are instead distributed, dispersed or diluted to the point where they never properly ramify in the present.
This is especially clear during these dream sequences, which typically see Anna waking up, with a classic film projected onto the contours of her apartment. Beyond a certain point, people outside Anna’s house become as notional as the classic film characters projected onto her walls, as she reduces the entire neighbourhood to a black-and-white film played out for her benefit – immediate, to be sure, in the way that films made exclusively for a big screen are always immediate, but exuding a pastness, a distance, that dislocates her from their stories. This fugitive space between film characters and neighbours suggests that the key pandemic experience here isn’t simply isolating alone, but watching other people together as you isolate alone – whether those people are neighbours or film stars doesn’t much matter.
Beyond a certain point, the film itself looks black-and-white too, as Wright dims the palette and mutes the lighting to reflect Anna’s state of mind. Combined with her trauma, that makes The Woman in the Window every bit as accurate as Doug Liman’s Locked Down at evoking a certain pandemic anomie. Yet while it’s not as crushingly bleak as Locked Down, it doesn’t really work as a mystery either, just because Anna is finally too unreliable a main character – caught in a dissociative fugue state that renders the final twist meaningless. Like Locked Down, then, The Woman in the Window testifies to the power of the pandemic to erode narrative, disrupt pacing, whittle away suspense, until it feels like there’s very little left here of the film as originally envisaged, let along the potboiling that made Finn’s novel a bestseller, even if that gradual dissolution of story is a weirdly addictive spectacle on its own terms too.