Sunday, May 16, 2021


It’s a total fluke of Hollywood’s pandemic scheduling that brings to streaming this weekend two mid-budget studio thrillers with movie star turns for middle-aged actresses. That they both center on women drawn into strangers’ high-stakes dramas while suffering from their own near-debilitating flashbacks to past trauma is just another coincidence, I suppose. If only they were both terrific. Alas, Netflix got the short end of the stick there, having picked up The Woman in the Window as damaged goods when it was sold off to the highest bidder. (20th Century Fox made the adaptation of the bestselling mystery novel back in 2018 — we don’t even need to go into the even wilder story of how the author was later exposed as a habitual con artist and fraudster in a lengthy New Yorker piece — before getting acquired by Disney, which forced reshoots that delayed the release, at which point the theaters were closed and, well, here we are.) Even if you didn’t know it was a troubled picture, it’d be clear right away it’s a muddled one. Director Joe Wright (Atonement) and screenwriter Tracy Letts (August: Osage County) have been given a pretty junky piece of source material, a transparent Rear Window rip-off in which an agoraphobic child psychologist (Amy Adams) spies some suspicious behavior from her new neighbors. The filmmakers treat the set-up as an excuse to swoop through a creaky townhouse, peer out windows, and glide across dark rooms as reality gets slippery. Eventually we get a host of marquee actors (Gary Oldman, Julianne Moore, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Anthony Mackie, Wyatt Russell, Brian Tyree Henry) cycling through Adams’ home as she gets increasingly confused about what, exactly, is going on across the street.

With hysterical accusations, devious deceptions, potential psychosis and psychopathy, and convoluted conflicts, every scene could, and maybe should, be an excuse to chow down on ham, but the film somehow never delivers on that potential. The actors stand around waiting for the main course that never arrives. The whole thing is routine as can be, with dark and stormy nights, and gaslighting suspects, and circular arguments, pile-ups of red herrings, and boy, I wonder if Hitchcock himself could’ve made Google searches a compelling source of thrills. The picture looks as dim and muddy as its plotting. Wright doesn’t even bring his usual stylish flourishes with any consistency, which makes for a curiously restrained and sleepy spelunking into bloated paperback surprises. At best it’ll throw a clip from a Hitchcock movie on our lead’s TV, which might be a cute tip-of-the hat if it wasn’t merely a reminder of how far craft has fallen in a case like this. Even the big twists just meekly peek out and slide off, one more shrug before you go. At least Adams, much better served here than by the dismal Hillbilly Elegy, for whatever that’s worth, gets to put the entire lousy picture on her shoulders and nearly carry it solo to the finish line. She inhabits every loose nerve ending and boozy pill-popping distraction as her character’s unraveling unconvincingly brings her closer to actually leaving the house.

Much better is the straight shooter Those Who Wish Me Dead. Its opening act is a bow drawn simply back; the next 75 minutes or so are a direct flight of an arrow to a fiery conclusion. There’s something admirable about its easy confidence and sturdy execution. The thing delivers where it counts. The story starts with a boy and his father (Finn Little and Jake Weber) on the run from bad guys (Nicholas Hoult and Aidan Gillen) who want them dead. They flee to Montana, where you just know they’ll cross paths with the small-town cop (Jon Bernthal) and the troubled forest service firefighter (Angelina Jolie) whose introductions have been cross-cut with the rising action. Directed and co-written by Taylor Sheridan (Hell or High Water), with author Michael Koryta from his novel, the quick blooded tension rises fast. Soon enough, the film becomes a deadly cat-and-mouse game — machine gun hunters and their vulnerable prey — stalking through the woods. Shades of fairy tale logic, perhaps, with a little boy lost in the forest, wolves on his heels, a woodsman caught in a trap, and a beautiful lady by a lake who just might be able to help him survive. But the thing is too much a grizzled non-nonsense snap of a genre effort to push overmuch on its potential fable qualities. Instead, it rests on Jolie as an engine of redemption, a woman given a desk job, of sorts, after a deadly fire outcome that weighs heavily on her mind. Now there’s a rattled child who needs rescue. It’s easy to root for them.

The movie is short and simple, and all the more effective for knowing just how to lean on its best elements. It helps that Jolie, one of our great modern movie stars, has rarely had a straightforward starring role in the last decade—just four times above the title in live action and two of them were as Maleficent. She commands the screen and exudes competence, even in a role that’s so thinly drawn that there’s nothing else but her star power to generate interest. The plot itself, too, is built from stock parts, but Sheridan knows how to stage his thrills with brutal efficiency. The tension — close up threats against the wide open national park spaces — builds on a steady upswing as the various participants try to keep their cool and their control through strategies that eventually lead to gun fights and, by the end, a raging forest fire. There are efficient thrills to the sturdy brutality of its inevitable violence, the quickly sketched sympathy for the victims, and the consistently well-timed escalations of danger. If the movie still finds time for some loose ends — what’s in the letter? and did that Big Name villain just drive off after his one scene in hopes of a sequel? — there’s pretty much nothing important that isn’t driven to its logical conclusion. We don’t get solid mid-level star vehicles often enough any more. At least this one’s pretty good.

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