The Woman in the Window, director Joe Wright’s twisty adaptation of A. J. Finn’s even twistier 2018 novel, is finally coming to Netflix on Friday. Originally scheduled for an October 2019 theatrical release, Disney scheduled reshoots and pushed the movie back to spring of 2020 after test-screening audiences hated its ending. Then the pandemic happened, and Disney sold the film to Netflix. Along the way, the New Yorker published a scathing profile revealing that “A.J. Finn” was a pseudonym for Dan Mallory, a former publishing executive and serial fabulist who lied about having serious illnesses, and the Hollywood Reporter published allegations of decades of abusive behavior from producer Scott Rudin.
The Woman in the Window itself is even twistier than its journey to the screen, so we break down all of its biggest surprises—from both the book and the movie, plus where they differ—below.
I just want to know what the twist is.
Twists! No high-concept thriller can get by on just one these days. But to make it all make sense, I first have to give a little backstory. The movie’s about Dr. Anna Fox, a child psychologist played by Amy Adams, who is housebound with severe agoraphobia after an unspecified trauma. When a new family named the Russells moves in across the street, Anna becomes convinced she has witnessed the father (Gary Oldman) murder his wife (Julianne Moore). Neither the police nor her family believe her, especially since a new woman (Jennifer Jason Leigh) has showed up and is claiming to be the wife Anna claims has been murdered.
So how many twists are there?
Three or four in the book, and two or three in the movie, depending on how you count.
Moviegoers get fewer twists?
Moviegoers get fewer of everything! Although the movie version of The Woman in the Window follows the main plot points of the novel, some characters and subplots have been excised. For example, in the novel, Anna passes her days with in-home physical therapy, online chess, and an internet forum where she gives advice to fellow agoraphobes; none of that is in the movie. (If you really want to see those plot points on screen, two of the three are in the 1995 thriller Copycat.)
So what are the twists?
The first one is pretty straightforward: Although Anna spends the first part of book and movie having phone conversations with her estranged husband Ed and daughter Olivia, it eventually comes out that they have been dead for nearly a year. Anna and Ed’s marriage was ending because Anna had an affair—for more details, see the novel—and their attempt to have one last vacation before telling their daughter about the divorce ended in disaster when Anna drove their car off a cliff in the middle of a winter storm. So that’s twist one, the ol’ Sixth Sense special: Anna calls dead people on the telephone.
Creepy. So that’s one.
That’s one. The second twist is what literary scholars call “the fake Fight Club switcheroo,” in which one character incorrectly comes to believe that part of the movie was only happening in their head. After Anna is forced to confront the fact that her husband and daughter are dead and she’s been imagining their conversations, it’s relatively easy for the police and the Russells to convince her that she made up the woman she believed she’d hung out with and subsequently seen murdered. In your standard Fight Club scenario, a character discovers that another major character only existed in their head, like Tyler Durden. In a fake Fight Club switcheroo, though, the character is wrong about this.
This is giving me a headache.
Well, wait until you hear about the third twist, a fakeout ending that’s only present in the novel. Shortly after coming to the conclusion that Julianne Moore’s Jane Russell was a figment of her imagination, Anna finds a photograph of her that she took the night they hung out, irrefutable proof that she existed. In the novel, she presents this photograph to the son, Ethan Russell, who she still thinks is lying about the murder to protect his father. Ethan finally breaks down and confesses that the first “Jane Russell” was his biological mother, but tells Anna that his adopted mother—the real Jane Russell—stabbed her to death. Weeping, Ethan asks Anna to let him give his parents a chance to go to the police, and she agrees.
Not quite! There’s still the lingering question of who has been sneaking around Anna’s house at night (someone emailed her a picture of herself asleep). Late that night, Anna snaps awake wondering why Ethan asked how her cat’s paw was doing, although there was no way he could have known it was injured. “How did he know about your paw?” she asks the cat aloud, to which Ethan, who has been hiding in the apartment, replies, “Because I visit you at night.” In the movie, Anna immediately discovers Ethan is responsible for the killing almost as soon as she finds the photograph—there’s no fakeout where she believes she’s saved him. You can still see remnants of this plot in the movie—Ethan is allergic to cats, and Anna’s cat does get its paw broken, but it’s never spelled out that he injured the cat to keep it from following him around while stalking Anna.
Wait, is the fakeout a twist or was the twist a fakeout?
I guess the twist is that the original twist was a fakeout? I’m not sure if that counts as one twist or two, but it leads into one of those classic “Oh no! the person you saved was evil all along!” reversals from movies like The Ring. The book hits this a little harder by giving Anna a moment to think she’s really saved Ethan instead of immediately having him go into full serial killer monologue mode. Either way, though, at that point it’s all over but the stabbing. (In both the movie and the book, Ethan chases Anna to the rooftop garden, but Anna pushes him to his death and survives.)
It sounds like this movie was reverse-engineered from a BuzzFeed list of movies with twist endings.
Look, if you’re saying that The Woman in the Window has too many far-fetched twists to be credible, you’re going to have to reconcile this with the fact that you’re making that point in an imagined dialogue with someone who only exists inside your head, much like Anna Fox, the protagonist of The Woman in the Window.
Now that you’ve figured out I don’t exist, I am going to stab you to death with a garden rake.
For more on The Woman in the Window, listen to Matthew Dessem and Laura Miller discuss the movie in spoiler-stuffed detail.