Women in Trouble
May 26, 2021
On The Woman in the Window, Those Who Wish Me Dead, and Oxygen
hen a bestseller is inevitably made into a movie, a familiar reader typically hopes not to finish the adaptation and decide that its source material was
better. But going into Netflix’s The Woman in the Window, based on Dan Mallory’s 2018 debut novel, I hoped the film would be better than the book. In it, a grieving, agoraphobic child psychologist named Anna Fox thinks she’s witnessed a murder in a neighboring brownstone. Winking to both Alfred Hitchcock’s Rear Window (1954) and most evidently the novels of Gillian Flynn and Paula Hawkins (specifically 2006’s Sharp Objects
and 2015’s The Girl on the Train, respectively), the novel was naturally nagged with the questions that expectedly guide this sort of story. Did our protagonist really see what she thought she did, or was it her imagination? The latter option seems more plausible in The Woman in the Window: Anna’s judgment has been flustered by the pills and booze she
feverishly downs to soothe her crippling sadness, and when police investigate, there doesn’t appear to be any evidence in her favor.
Working with familiar tropes under the pseudonym A.J. Finn, Mallory frequently nodded to his inspirations openly and sometimes humorously — the way Scream (1996) liked to invoke an earlier generation’s horror movies for an easy laugh. Anna’s paranoia, in part, seems to stem from her cinephilia — she has a taste for classic, anxiety-riddled thrillers. In the course of the book, there are cute mentions of Laura (1944), Dark Passage (1947), of course Rear Window, Les Diaboliques (1955), Rififi (1955), and others. Anna’s bored peeping turns her into a real-life scion of several of the troubled movie protagonists she spends her evenings with: the everyperson made into an out-of-their-depth hero because of unfortunate timing.
The Woman in the Window was the kind of novel you consumed rather than delighted in reading — engineered to keep you interested in what was going to happen next and not much else. Its studied efficiency was a double-edged sword. Almost everything about The Woman in the Window was so derivative that it could feel clinical — even cynical — rather than trashily fun. (Mallory’s shiny prose additionally had a tendency to feel a hair glib — like he thought of himself as too smart to be writing this junk.) And although the open acknowledgements of the novels and films which inspired it were sometimes superficially gratifying, in the way understanding an obscure reference can be, the invocations felt less like appreciative, meaningful gestures and more attempts to get ahead of critics who might pejoratively call the work a rehash.
This in-on-the-joke beach read was ultimately a lot less interesting than the hair-raising stories that came out about Mallory in its aftermath. In 2019, The New Yorker published a riveting profile by Ian Parker in which Mallory is credibly framed as a pathological liar, plagiarist, and generally icky opportunist — a Tom Ripley-like villain who very well might appear in one of the movies Anna obsessively watches. Mallory’s many deceptions are more striking than anything his debut book had to offer. An upcoming series about his deceit will star Jake Gyllenhaal; that I can’t wait to see.
There was plenty reason to think The Woman in the Window, in movie form, might rise above its source text. The adaptation is directed by esteemed British director Joe Wright; has a stacked cast (it has Amy Adams, continuing her recent streak playing self-destructive, unreliable women, in the Anna role, with support from Julianne Moore, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Gary Oldman, Anthony Mackie, and Brian Tyree Henry); and is written by Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Tracy Letts. (He also has a small role in the movie.) Ahead of time, all this adornment could also be looked at as a series of red flags. Why was this silly, purely escapist thriller seemingly being treated as if it were a prestige project a bunch of A-listers had to be in rather than something lower stakes?
It was right, it turns out, to be suspicious of what seemed to be a misreading — popularity conflated with a meatiness that required a surplus of starry talent. Early test screenings of the movie were unsuccessful; reshoots multiplied; release delays proliferated (largely because of COVID). Now that The Woman in the Window is on Netflix, there’s no questioning that it’s neither better nor worse than its just-OK source material. It’s pretty much the same, which is to say efficiently crafted but also airless — so much a compendium of worn Hitchcockian tropes that it can’t keep us on edge or have any sort of real emotional resonance. It’s all slickness; it seems to think it's better than it is.
Just as Mallory tried to keep a stale conceit fresh with an overactive writing style, Wright at least directs with some imagination. Colors are so much accentuated that they call to mind the visual worlds of 1970s giallo thrillers as much as they reflect how Anna’s closed-off world is becoming increasingly oppressive. (I think, from the perspective of a person visiting her apartment, the colors would look drab; Anna’s just been looking at her apartment’s walls and furniture for long enough that everything feels obnoxious.) The climactic showdown with the killer, while annoyingly over-literal in its dialogue, has a real physicality and rhythm to it.
But not much else is good in The Woman in the Window.
Doing what it can with deficient material, its cast tries its best but is weighed down. (It’s especially painful to see the always-interesting Leigh put into a teensy, flimsy role almost anyone could fill; she seems anonymous under her bell-shaped blonde wig.) Familiarity with a movie’s plot beforehand because of the book it’s based on shouldn’t sink it; instead a reader should find new excitement discovering how it’s going to be put to the screen, à la The Woman in the Window inspiration Gone Girl. But the cinematic The Woman in the Window doesn’t invigorate its source material; if you’ve already read the book, you won’t get anything out of the movie. It doesn’t feel like a distinct entity; it duplicates most of the book’s nuts and bolts but doesn’t freshen its essence — give us any good reasons why it warranted a movie adaptation.
I couldn’t help but think of Brian De Palma while watching The Woman in the Window, not because it feels like a popular De Palma movie but because its general flatness reminded me how difficult it actually is to mimic Alfred Hitchcock and keep the audience from groaning. In the earlier part of his career, with movies like Sisters (1973), Dressed to Kill (1980), and especially Body Double (1984), De Palma was often unfavorably compared to his spiritual predecessor, both because of comparable storylines, highfalutin visual styles, and similar preoccupations. With hindsight, though, De Palma’s movies have remained fun to watch because there’s a palpable joy in his filmmaking. He gleefully ekes out the sleazier underpinnings of a typical Hitchcock plot to differentiate himself — he’s more modern — and is so confident about what he’s doing visually that you as much are enjoying what you’re seeing unfold on screen as you are able to detect De Palma’s own enthusiasm for his craft. (His Raising Cain, from 1992, might be his magnum opus style-wise — it’s a portfolio of all of his go-to visual tricks, still not yet staled like they are now.) He was able to find something original within familiarity.
Like these De Palma movies, The Woman in the Window
has Hitchcockian ambition. But the movie, like the novel, shows what can happen when homage is done purely formulaically, with no real brio or infectious humor — close attention to whether suspense is building or not, either. What De Palma did wasn’t easy; The Woman in the Window proves it. Mallory’s book has its merits, but not everything needs an adaptation.
Amy Adams in 2021's The Woman in the Window.
hree narrative threads are introduced within the first five minutes of Those Who Wish Me Dead — early evidence that this race-against-time thriller knows the virtues of cutting to the chase. (It never meanders.) In
the first subplot, a former firefighter in Montana named Hannah (Angelina Jolie), now working as a forest-fire lookout, wakes up from a nightmare in which she sees her colleagues and the people she is trying to save gobbled up by flame. In the next, a mansion in Fort Lauderdale explodes. And in the other, a Jacksonville-based forensic accountant, Owen (Jake Weber), hears of the explosion and immediately takes off with his 10-year-old son, Connor (Finn Little), panic-stricken. Owen figures it best to head to Montana, where his sheriff ex-brother-in-law, Ethan (Jon Bernthal), lives in a secluded cabin with his pregnant wife, Allison (a standout Medina Senghore).
What exactly is going on, and how all these fragments will come together, will take some time to clear up; the movie’s plot comes across more convoluted on paper than on screen, so I won’t do much by way of detangling here. What I will say is that Owen worked for the guy whose house was blown up; the last audit he did for him revealed shady stuff that presumably implicated a web of powerful people. The explosion was, naturally, no accident; the killers who carried out the task, the impressively unfeeling hitmen Patrick and Jack (Nicholas Hoult and Aidan Gillen), are now on Owen and Connor’s tails. Hannah, who used to date Ethan, gets involved through happenstance; she doesn’t discover the mutual connection for a while.
We find easy joy watching these disparate narrative strands eventually come together in a sleek braid. Director Taylor Sheridan, who also co-wrote the movie with Michael Koryta and Charles Leavitt, does a kind of careful interweaving that assures tension continue mounting while characters develop and dynamics believably establish. It also helps that many of these actors — namely Jolie, Bernthal, and Senghore — are formidable actors who are simply entertaining to watch. Early scenes, when we’re still getting to know these characters outside the main thriller narrative, are among the movie’s best because they are freest of plot obligation. (Bernthal and Senghore also have such great chemistry — they feel immediately lived-in as a couple whose relationship is sturdied because of what seems like a solid friendship — that I’d watch a lower-key romantic drama with them at the center.)
Of course, the draw of Those Who Wish Me Dead is Jolie, who hasn’t had a role disconnected from fantasy and/or animation since 2015’s little-seen By the Sea, which she also wrote and directed. Masterful at oscillating from playful to deadly serious, vulnerable to formidably strong, it’s bracing seeing her sink her teeth into a fairly juicy mid-career role as a woman, still coping with deeply entrenched trauma, thrust into a de facto heroism that inflames many of the anxieties she’s running away from.
The Hannah character feels, I think, like a natural evolution from the action heroines Jolie played during the earlier part of her career. Those women, as seen in the Lara Croft movies, Gone in 60 Seconds (2000), Mr. and Mrs. Smith
(2005), Wanted (2008), and others, had an unshakeableness to them — a seductive youthful cockiness. When we see Hannah hanging out with old firefighter buddies, we can still see some of that; she lands herself in trouble when she tries pulling off a dangerous stunt with a parachute to impress her pals during an outdoor party. But aside from this fleeting moment of youthful recklessness, Hannah is like a second act embodied — the still-strong woman who has at this point seen too much to very effectively put up a consistent veneer of cool and control the way she used to.
It’s almost a given that the last act of the movie, mostly a cat-and-mouse chase through a Montana landscape eaten by wildfire, feel a bit perfunctory compared to what precedes it. The set-up is just personable enough to make us briefly forget about the underlying formula, and so when the more action-oriented stuff arrives, it — although shot well — doesn’t have the same surprise-freshness. In another world, I could do without the thriller material entirely. Sheridan has a feel for his Montana characters and the milieu they share — I envision a looser procedural film somewhere within the movie. Especially compared to The Woman in the Window,
a movie damaged by the gulf between how it perceives itself versus how we perceive it, I nonetheless appreciated Those Who Wish Me Dead’s ability to meet genre requirements while also offering up characters we would want to spend more time with outside the movie’s boundaries, who contain worlds of their own that could very well fill out separate films.
n Alexandre Aja’s last movie, the lots-of-fun Crawl
(2019), a young woman was stuck in a rickety house in the middle of a Category-5 hurricane. She’d love to leave, but, a little into the film, discovered that a gang
of troublemaking alligators, newly able to prowl the freshly flooded neighborhood, had blocked the exits. For 90 exciting minutes, we were made to wonder, with increasing urgency: Will this woman stay alive long enough to get rescued, or will these snapping jaws and/or rising waters get the best of her? I thought Crawl was one of the better action movies of its year. Consistently suspenseful and gnarly, it surprised us even though little about its plot was very novel. It was superlative formula action filmmaking that made you feel like you hadn’t seen several times over a civilian having to fend off bloodthirsty creatures for the length of a movie.
Aja’s follow-up to Crawl — Oxygen, now on Netflix — is another economic thriller about a woman trapped. It also works with a familiar concept; it also never changes setting (save for a handful of flashbacks). But it’s far more bare bones, by necessity. Oxygen is about a woman (the always-excellent Mélanie Laurent) who wakes up inside a box. Covered from head to toe — like a mummy — in mesh, and strapped down by numerous buckles and wires, this woman also awakens with a blank mind: no inklings of her history, her name, or how she could have gotten here. The film is slightly more high concept than, say, Buried (2010), in which Ryan Reynolds, armed with only a cell phone and a few other knick knacks, knows from the jump that he has been buried underground.
The woman, who later learns her name is Elizabeth Hansen, bangs on the walls and ceiling of her enclosure enough so that a bunch of lights and screens turn on. She is apparently inside of a high-tech cryogenic chamber. Elizabeth learns that it can connect to WiFi, make phone calls, and is equipped with a Siri-like robot companion named M.I.L.O. (voiced by Mathieu Amalric) who asks her frequently if she would like to be sedated and sometimes even tries poking at her with syringes. “Do you see what I have to put up with?” she jokes to one of the many people she calls in the course of the movie.
That’s one of very few instances of comic relief in the otherwise very-serious Oxygen, where Elizabeth, with 35 percent of her air left to spare upon waking, has to make like MacGruber to figure out how she’s going to get out of her tiny cell before suffocating. When M.I.L.O. tells our heroine that she has a 0 percent chance of survival, it’s less of a reason to give up and more of an incentive: try and stop her! Aside from going a bit long by way of time spent on Elizabeth using her speedy WiFi to figure out who she is, I liked this taut thriller where plot twists, of course a mandate when your lead is an amnesiac and in extreme peril, are unexpectedly not as much designed to shock us as they are meant to give the storyline an expansiveness. The more the movie reveals itself, the less it feels like a claustrophobic horror movie and more a creative, Russian Doll-like science-fiction tale. (Bonus points for the subtle pandemic-era relevance — not just because its main character is trapped in a confined space, as its constantly unspooling narrative shows.)
Oxygen doesn’t feel like as much of a renewal of an old form as its predecessor had, and it’s pretty visually unengaging — commitedly sterile, though Aja aims for a couple of eye-catching transitions. But along with Crawl, it nonetheless works as additional proof that Aja is a dependable genre filmmaker. You wouldn’t say you weren’t at least a little excited by what was going on, and you certainly wouldn’t call Aja, despite working with overworked material, lazy.
The Woman in the Window: C
Those Who Wish Me Dead: B+