On top of being a striking example of American architecture, the New York brownstone has proven a durable relic of the post civil war urban planning aesthetic. An unmistakable mystique endures from the elongated footprint, raised floorplan, and the tiered and cavernous spaces they house. Moreover with a 150-year history behind them, they are also houses of history and, often, misery.
Drama and baggage of countless generations that once dwelled inside their walls. Some of that history is sordid, though most is plain and otherwise nondescript. So synonymous are they with the city that elements of that history is reflected in the cinema set in the area.
The Panic Room‘s setting is home to a lost heirloom left by first occupants. In Mo’ Better Blues, Bleek Gilliam breaks a cycle of oppressive parenting in the final scene by allowing his son to leave the house to play outside. Not forgetting of course an entire afternoon of neighborhood residents gathered on and around a brownstone’s stoops in another Spike Lee film.
Synonymous though not necessarily ubiquitous. Of these iconic structures Edith Wharton once said the following glowing words of praise: “New York, cursed with its universal chocolate-covered coating of the most hideous stone ever quarried…” And though well traveled and intentioned, her words would no sooner fall on the average denizen’s ear-and they’ll hear it second hand as opposed to them reading for themselves; I should know, I’m no better as I don’t read either-than be met with the quip for Wharton to “engage in jolly fornication with thine self.” Which brings us to today’s wretched monstrosity.
Borrowing from a variety of cinematic works of the highest and lower orders, both recent and old, Joe Wright’s latest is a thriller in the familiar mold of terror-comes-home. Elements of Hitchcock’s Rear Window, Fincher’s Panic Room, Tate’s The Girl on The Train, come together in this messy melange of prestige-adjacent and almost-noir thriller that frankly goes nowhere.
Starring Amy Adams and boasting an obvious title that evokes voyeurism galore, my perverse hopes were dashed upon learning that the accomplished actor would not be the one subjecting herself to our gawking. Instead of her disrobing for our vicarious perversions, it is she who is casting her eyes out the front window and past acceptable boundaries.
Set entirely inside a Manhattan brownstone, The Woman in the Window is a picturesque showcase of the familiar domestic, brimming with a gorgeous palette that would entice anyone with inclinations toward work in interior or set designer, or partaking in trespassing. The interiors blend vibrant and dull surfaces and, as to be expected, the three-story behemoth housing the decay feels majestic without a single shot of its exterior revealed until the very end. It is also home to Anna Fox (Amy Adams); a wino, a recluse and a full-bore cat-lady. A pill popping shut-in, now mired in the funk of an intense, unexplained agoraphobia. Her fall from grace is made more dramatic by also being a child therapist and ironic as the care of own child is now entrusted to the father.
Beginning one autumn Monday, with a clearly marked timeline, the film flows in a brisk, episodic rhythm, with each day commencing with a call to her husband and daughter. That pattern elicits a nonexistent structure as—with each subsequent day’s plunge into confusion—logic, reason and the filmmaker’s credibility are slowly eroded. Anna spends her days spying on new neighbors, the Russells. On separate days, Junior and Mrs. Russell (Moore) come over when it is suggested Mr. Russell (Oldman) is a domineering type.
Off they go and Anna assumes her position by the window. Suddenly, she’s witness to a dispute with the aftermath resembling the site of a crime scene. Anna calls the cops, they arrive, everyone is accounted for, and the woman she thought was Mrs. Russell is now someone else (Leigh). Anna doubles down on what she believes she saw and continues to keep watch convinced of a truth vindicating her wild claims would duly arrive. Her nights transition into the following day in an alcohol-induced trance. All sense of time is compromised in the murky headspace between her last moment of consciousness preceding the stupor and the next bout of inebriety.
Quite how a premise involving Hitchcock’s Rear Window, and featuring Julianne Moore, Gary Oldman and Jennifer Jason Leigh, can fall flat is, luckily, a realization than may dawn on the viewer somewhere nearer the end rather than early on in the proceedings. Substituting the snappy exchanges between James Stewart and Grace Kelly for a poorer rendition, one more in line with Anna’s mental state than any imitation could approximate, while understandably appropriate, comes with none of the glee one expects from observing a scandal unfold.
At least the couple from Hitchcock’s classic boasted the amorous ambiguities to counteract the suspense. The dialog, while meaningless exposition, served to smooth out the sharper gaps between peaks and valleys in the action’s tension. Here, Anna is left to her own devices with little of the charismatic sort to bounce ideas off of. Instead, the solitary instance of similar small talk (“Jane” Russell comes over and the pair kill an entire evening shooting the breeze over wine) is reduced to the biggest red herring revisited later from a different vantage point.
One perturbing realization occurs at the moment of her liberation from past traumas, we’re led to believe. For a woman whose libidinous indiscretions and ill-timed pettiness claimed the lives of her husband and child in an off-road accident to simply shed the weight of trauma upon surviving a home invasion, thus attaining a measure of exoneration and closure, resolution and acceptance were rather comically easy to come by. A sympathetic cop (Henry) presents an unlikely ally in the penultimate moment, with the idea being that heroes do not wear capes and that the weak be coddled, I suppose. And though one may be tempted to ponder ways to fix the movie, few would supersede changing its title to The Gaslighting of Anna Fox and the Audience by the Misguided Joe Wright and his Minions, AJ Finn and Tracy Letts.