Arts and Culture, Film, Literature

The Woman in the Window Book Review: A J Finn’s twisty thriller is a fascinating study of a mind unleashed

It’s perhaps ironic that I ended up buying and writing a book review of The Woman In The Window because I read the recent expose in The New Yorker of its author, A J Finn, Dan Mallory’s alias. Mallory’s life – and his web of lies, it turns out – could give his own characters a run for their money. Yet, it said to something interesting to me about a reader’s, or perhaps even my own, psychology. Finding out about Finn’s duplicity: a fake doctorate from Oxford, his fabrication of life-threatening brain cancer and parental deaths, did not make me want to read The Woman In the Window on its own, but it did spark a sense of intrigue: where did Finn end and his deceptive characters begin? Would reading The Woman In The Window be more than just suspenseful entertainment, in the vein of Gillian Flyn’s Gone Girl or Paula Hawkins’ The Girl on the Train? A quick plot synopsis: alcoholic woman, traumatic event, window, and the promise of lots of twists, was all it took for me to be heading over to Amazon’s Kindle store and start downloading the title. I could have waited to buy a physical copy, but who can wait for that when there’s a novel promising the good stuff, and promising it now?

My first impression of the novel was that I liked it. The combination of the old and the new worked well: the modern New York City, bright, bustling, full of almost unbearable sound and sensation. And then Anna Fox’s world: unbearable –unbearably quiet – and utterly alone, her days filled with vials of merlot and old movies. Anna’s love of film noir – she devours everything from Hitchcock’s Vertigo to Otto Preminger’s Laura – gives us a taste of what it’s like to be trapped in Anna’s head, as she lives through fantasy – a brief respite from reality. But Anna is no ordinary person – a former child-psychologist, turned agoraphobic, Anna is stuck – not just inside the house, but inside her mind. Her mind is clearly a brilliant one, but one that may also send her over the edge, into a pit of endless despair. It’s only when the Russell’s move in across the road that Anna’s life is injected with some intrigue: a reason to get out of bed in the morning. Anna loves to watch them through her window, and with her zoom camera in hand, drip-feeding her fragments of their life, she soon learns all about them. Mrs Russell, she learns is having an affair. Their son, Ethan, a beautiful and sensitive teenager, spends his time in solitude in his room.

After a merlot-fuelled bonding session with Mrs Russell, Anna begins to undress many of the Russell’s problems – the way Mrs Russell feels trapped, and, like Anna, longs for a friend, her worries about her son, and her husband’s ferocious, unpredictable temper.
Everything changes when, a few days later, she spies the Russell’s arguing through her window. She sees the image of a woman – Mrs Russell – with a knife inside her. Then, almost as though she never existed at all, Mrs Russell disappears. Or, at least, the Mrs Russell that Anna befriended does. In her place is a new Mrs Russell, dark, rather than blond, sleek, refined, and practically hostile towards Anna. Who is this woman? What’s happened to the other Mrs Russell? And is Anna’s vision real, or simply the delusions of an insane mind? This may be where the questions begin, but we have to wait until the end of the novel to find all the answers.

The Woman In The Window is in many ways a sleek and intriguing thriller. The language is so vibrant you can easily get lost in it – ‘The buildings loom impossibly tall, thrusting like fingers into a rinsed-blue sky above’; ‘Beyond the window branches stir, shedding leaves like embers; they spark against the glass, fly away.’ Finn’s style, though sumptuous and dazzling, does feel slightly over-written. There were times I had to resist the urge to shout: ‘Just get on with it!’ as Finn treated us to yet another: ‘long pause’ before the character decided to do or saying something that had a hope of keeping us readers hooked for another chapter. For the most part though, Finn’s setting in Anna’s oldie-worldie vision of New York – complete with spying neighbours, abundant beauty, and seemingly endless reels of black-and-white classics – compliments the ornate style.

The character of Anna Fox is also an interesting one to consider. Being stuck in Anna’s head is actually an enthralling place to be. Not just because of her insight, or intelligence – but because there are times when we see flickers of the woman she used to be. Despite, or perhaps because of, her mental illness, Anna can be razor-sharp and intuitive. It’s the moments that she spends alone, truly contemplating the state of her life, and feeling her pain (sans Merlot) that we start to feel close to her. But these moments are few and far between. Although Anna is, on the one hand, everything we need in a heroine: both strong and fragile, smart, occasionally witty, and tenacious, I never really felt myself pulling for her. My emotional investment in her as a character was limited to these fleeting moments, and I found myself much more interested in how the plot was unravelling and the whodunit element of the story than Anna’s well-being. There are also a few odd plot developments – Anna’s one-night stand with her tenant, who she barely exchanges a word with aside from when she requires him as a handyman, feels unnecessary and almost entirely pointless.

The big ‘twist’ at the heart of The Woman In the Window and the reason behind Anna’s torment, can be guessed by the canny reader within the first few chapters, but its predictability adds a poignancy to the moment of revelation.

Less predictable, at least for me, was the twist involving the crime at the centre of Anna’s new obsession: the apparent murder of Anna’s neighbour, as seen by Anna through her bedroom window: her spyglass to the outside world. Yet it’s during the novel’s final act that the action picks up a pace – we have the unmasking of an unlikely killer, a rooftop chase, and a conclusion that’s both satisfying and haunting. Whether The Woman In The Window will maintain its hype, securing the accolades of its contemporaries, remains to be seen. Like Gone Girl and The Girl on The Train, The Woman In The Window is getting the Hollywood treatment. With a glittering cast that includes Amy Adams, Julianne Moore and Gary Oldman, and with the period-piece connoisseur, Joe Wright, sitting in the director’s seat, The Woman In the Window film is sure to generate plenty of buzz, especially given that its release date places it in the prime position for award season. How Hollywood, following its recent public disgraces, will react to adding another controversial figure in the form of AJ Finn to its mix, is yet unknown. But one thing is guaranteed: the name AJ Finn, and his alluring debut, The Woman In The Window, will remain on reader’s lips for a long time to come.

Arts and Culture, Film, Horror

Film Review: Hereditary – ‘Rosemary’s Baby’ Gone Wrong

image

The Following Review Contains Some Spoilers. Avoid if you have not seen Hereditary or wish to avoid spoilers.

This is a controversial opinion: I didn’t like Hereditary. As a big fan of smart and original horror films, the macabre flick that hit cinemas in mid-June has been on my list of must-see Summer films since the buzz surrounding it began. And there has been a lot of buzz. It has a very respectable 89% of positive reviews on Rotten Tomatoes, The Sundance Film Festival called it ‘The Scariest Horror Movie Ever’ and critics queued up to lavish it with praise. The Vulture’s David Edelstein described it as making the viewer ‘see things you can never unsee and feel pain you can never un-feel’, whilst The Guardian’s Peter Bradshaw called it a ‘brilliant fear machine.’ So it was perhaps no wonder that my expectations were sky-high.

The premise is a very solid one. When the stony and mysterious matriarch, 78-year-old Ellen Taper Leigh passes away, she leaves a chilling legacy behind in the form of an unidentified hereditary illness (I guess the clue is in the title!) Her death leaves her family devastated, but probably not in the way you would expect. You see, Leigh was far from a lovable Betty White figure – we get the impression that her passing is more of a relief than a source of bereavement. She leaves behind her daughter, Annie Graham, played by the ever-sensational Toni Collette, and her troubled grandchildren Charlie (Milly Shapiro) and Peter (Alex Wolff). Shapiro is wonderfully creepy as Grandma’s favourite – when we see her carefully cutting off a pigeon’s head as though she is merely crafting at school and staring statue-like into the camera, it quickly becomes clear that we’ve got a child villain to rival even The Omen’s Damien. It’s a pity, therefore that Shapiro is underused, as is her fiendish accomplice, Grandma Taper Lee, and although director Ari Aster has very good reasons for this, the result is that it shifts Hereditary from spine-chilling extravaganza to occasionally farcical.

That is not to say that Hereditary does not have some good moments – it’s a cleverly crafted film, with everything from Charlie’s creepy decapitation of the pigeon, to the inscription of Paimon’s symbol on the phone post that kills Charlie, all pointing towards Hereditary’s grizzly conclusion. Charlie’s decpitation which occurs less than an hour into the film has become the most talked about scene in the movie and for good reason. It’s director Ari Aster’s favourite and the whole sequence is simultaneously sickening, brutal and unnervingly real. After going to a party with her pot-loving brother, Charlie has an allergic reaction to chocolate cake containing nuts. Whilst her frantic brother attempts to drive her to the hospital, Charlie sticks her head out of the window to try and gasp for air, before being accidentally decapitated by a phone post. Rather than calling the ambulance or his parents, a shell-shocked Peter simply drives home and goes to bed, leaving his parents to discover their daughter’s horrific death the next morning. The sequence switches between close-ups of Peter’s eyes, Collette’s wailing and finally the image of Charlie’s bloodied head surrounded by insects. Hereditary certainly isn’t afraid to be shocking or ugly – and here it works to brilliant effect. But the rest of the film just cannot sustain this. You do not need to be a first-class film critic to know that Hereditary is intended to be artistic, innovative and, much like Darren Aronovsky’s Mother!, sometimes hideously over-the-top. To read it as a metaphor of and a meditation on the pernicious and often insidious impact that mental health conditions can have on entire families is a smart and compelling idea. All these ideas can be appreciated and admired, without necessarily approving of the way they were executed (pardon the pun!)

I’d also venture that disliking or feeling indifferent towards Hereditary is not a sign that mass culture has infected our ability to appreciate a well-made film. Although many modern audiences undoubtedly lap up the likes of the Saw franchise and its butcher-circus, having never been a fan of gore for the sake of gore, I don’t think Hereditary’s rejection of mainstream horror tropes was what made me dislike it. After all, the film contains plenty of bloody-violence – sometimes well done, as in the aforementioned scene, but sometimes it seemed it was playing a little too much on its ability to shock and show macabre images that other films dare not. The problem at the heart of Hereditary, for me, is that whilst it draws heavily on some of the best horror films of all time – Rosemary’s Baby and The Exorcist have been two popular comparisons – it fails to leave its audience in awe. It ventures towards an exploration of the paranoia and neuroses that is part of everyday living, but unlike Rosemary’s Baby it fails to deliver the final, gut-wrenching pay-off that could have rendered it comparable to such classics.