The Woman in the Window (2021) *

I stopped watching this mid-drivel so don’t count on me for a balanced assessment. But it does point up the dangers of the current Netflix obsession. In the cinema, no matter how bad a picture, I would always stay to the end.  Particularly with Netflix’s movie joblot I found myself switching off in frustration that it was ever given the green light. I bet, though, Twentieth Century Fox were delighted to have been able to offload it onto Netflix, which provides no acceptable measure of audience response, rather than watching it sink like a stone at the movie box office.

It’s also a cautionary tale about the problems of snapping up a bestseller supposedly in the Gone Girl (2014) and The Girl on a Train (2016) vein, both featuring as here an unreliable narrator, without working out how such fiction might translate to the screen. Buying bestsellers is usually an astute piece of business from the Hollywood perspective. Both the novels mentioned sold in excess of 20 million copies. Even if only 10 per cent of the book buyers went to see the movie, you are talking about $20 million already at the box office. If it’s 20 per cent, then that’s a flat $40 million, and so on.

Bestsellers tended to get snapped up quickly, often in pre-publication, and although they might come with riders attached relating to copy sales, generally you are looking at a movie sales tag of around $1 million. That’s a tiny fraction of the cost of any movie budget with the double bonus that readers will more than offset the purchase price and that the bestseller angle provides an easy marketing hook.

I go to the movies once a week and watch at least two films and sometimes as many as four. And I pay to go. I buy my ticket rather than, as a movie critic, gaining free access. So I’m a sucker for almost anything and if you’ve been reading my Blog you’ll see that I have a pretty high tolerance level and enjoy a wide variety of pictures. So it takes a lot for me to get a downer on a particular movie.

So what’s gone wrong here? The book pivoted on the notion that the protagonist Anne Fox (Amy Adams), imprisoned by agoraphobia in her apartment, views the world through the prism of old Hollywood movies. So old pictures inform much of the writing, they are referenced all the time, almost in the sense of “what would Humphrey Bogart do.” That’s just not an option for a movie, so we are only given a few glimpses of films like Spellbound and they do not play any part in explaining her mental state.

So then it’s basically a re-run of Rear Window (1954) with instead of voyeuristic proclivities being deemed acceptable because it’s James Stewart doing the peeking we have what is effectively a creepy “cat lady” (minus the cats of course) who moons around her apartment drinking. She employs a psychiatrist but he’s redundant in movie terms because we already know she’s loopy and we don’t need to be told that, and that no matter what she did it’s not going to make us look upon her with any more kindness. Why? Because she has a singularly unattractive personality.

Amy Adams (Arrival, 2016) can normally be relied upon to deliver a good performance, but she is hopeless, generating not an ounce of sympathy for her predicament, not helped by going spare at kids doing nothing more dangerous than enjoying Halloween. But she’s not alone in producing audience antipathy. Of the couple across the street whom she spies upon, Jane Russell (Julianne Moore) has obnoxiousness down to a tee while husband Alistair (Gary Oldman) is over-the-top. And if an audience can’t find anyone to like it’s not going to like the film. 

For a film boasting two Oscar-winners – Gary Oldman for Darkest Hour (2017) and Julianne Moore (Still Alice, 2014) – plus six nominations for Adams and one for Jennifer Jason Leigh and stars Anthony Mackie and Wyatt Russell from current television mini-series The Falcon and the Winter Soldier (2021), this is a hatful of talent waiting for a rabbit to jump out and perform a miracle cure on a thriller with no thrills. A packet of exposition gets in the way of audience involvement and director Joe Wright (Pride and Prejudice, 2005) fails to make any headway in the Hitchockian department.

Perhaps the most bizarre aspect of his movie car crash is that its timing could not be more apposite. A film about not being able to go out during a pandemic that confined global populations to their homes should have struck some kind of chord. Of course, it’s been sitting on the Twentieth Century Fox (now rebranded as “20th Century Movies”) shelf since 2019 and it might have been better for all concerned had it stayed there.

Catch this on Netflix.

Possessor (2020) *****

This Brandon Cronenberg (son of you-know-who) rumination on identity is heavily disguised as a gory and occasionally sexy dystopian thriller. What appears at first glance a homage to giallo – toplining on shock, flesh and blood – soon reveals deeper layers of something more insistently disturbing. Focusing on an identity thief whose victim turns the tables into a who-owns-who, the films asks questions about the nature of identity and the effect of memory loss or memory accrual on individual personality. An early scene, part-debrief/part-interrogation, sees identity mind-robber Andrea Riseborough interviewed by boss Jennifer Jason Leigh to determine her own memory status, picking her way through a box of items carrying emotional connection, but it later becomes clear that Leigh has more sinister concerns: is the Riseborough returned from her latest adventure the same one as was sent out or has she been infiltrated by another?

Riseborough borrows identities in order to perpetrate a series of assassinations for an unseen corporation. Such murders are gorier than her employers would expect, invariably involving sharp implements, and setting the viewer to wonder whether the source for such brutality comes from a deeper part of the woman’s psyche. How much she is who she says she is is also questionable; before turning up on her ex’s doorstep, she rehearses what she wants to say. So there is mental and emotional dislocation at play, though whether that is the result of the experiments she appears to willingly undertake or whether from an existing characteristic is hard to say. So Cronenberg always has us at a disadvantage, and he keeps us that way, one step removed from what is going on, and may have occurred in the past, and only the determined assurance that nothing is going to turn out as it should.

One of the elements that places this picture in the top-notch category is that Cronenberg’s future does not fully work, components appear constantly out of place, as if a gear is always slipping. When Riseborough impersonates a man it is clear she has not quite grasped his full personality. When she possesses the identity of Christopher Abbott, a lowly drone partnering boss’s daughter Tuppence Middleton, he/she appears to be sleepwalking, parts of his personality eluding her, the disconnect so obvious that Middleton continues to ask what’s wrong and Abbott seems to forget that he is having an affair or has a friend at work. Again, it’s not clear whether this is Riseborough’s skillset drifting, or an extreme example of the dangers of identity theft. Instead of this whole concept being a scientific marvel, he/she is always one step behind. (Nothing to do with the plot but the previous butter-wouldn’t-melt-in-her-mouth English actress Middleton has also gone through a screen persona transformation, searching out her inner raunch for hot action with Abbott).

When Abbott begins to imagine inhabiting Riseborough’s face, the ghastly apparition seen on the poster, and in one of the movie’s most compelling scenes, the story takes a different turn, as if a Terminator is now on her tail.

The world depicted is an invasive one. Riseborough can infect the brain and take over the body, while Abbott’s day-job appears voyeuristic, as if the internet eye had become all-encompassing. To complete the dystopian feel, streets are always deserted and although that may be the result of budget restriction it fits the overall tone, this concrete jungle in sharp contract with murder in marble halls (a cameo by Sean Bean).

Riseborough is at her haunted best, Leigh steely as her boss, Abbott a revelation as the disturbed stolen property. Nod to Jim Williams for a brilliant score. While Cronenberg tags Blade Runner, Brazil, Blue Thunder and Terminator, the movie is an original. With enough drive and mystery to keep the thriller aspects at full tilt and while following in father David Cronenberg’s footsteps in his thirst for gore, the thrust of the picture is quite different, the concept so good it could have gone any number of different ways: the burglar trapped between two identities: the identities at war: or the personalities trying to make up what has been removed. You are left wondering what else could be going on in the world of Cronenberg’s imagination and not so much begging for a sequel but another parallel adventure in this particular universe. When a movie is still preying on your mind several days later, that’s when you know you have uncovered something special.