6 out of 10
Emily Blunt as Rachel
Directed by Tate Taylor
The Girl on the Train Review:
The Girl on the Train doesn’t want to reinvent the psychological thriller but does want to renew it with a focus on the victims and in particular what it means to be a woman in the center of such a story. If the adaptation of Paula Hawkins’ novel sounds very similar in tone to Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl, that’s not an accident nor even particularly a negative.
It’s a point of view on the thriller which is desperately in need of more investigation and for its first half, The Girl on the Train looks to be the film which will do that, thanks to strong performances and solid direction from The Help’s Tate Taylor. Surface-oriented storytelling and nihilistic portrayals of its characters undoes a lot of those gains, even if it doesn’t ruin the film. The classic film pitch has always been ‘if you like that then you’ll love this.’ Well, if you loved Gone Girl, you’ll think The Girl on the Train is… okay.
The setup is genuinely excellent, even if it is convenient in the way only big-screen thrillers can be. Alcoholic divorced Rachel (Blunt) rides the train back and forth from New York to Connecticut all day at first so that she can keep an eye on her ex-husband (Theroux) and his new wife and child with whom she is obsessed as a symbol of her lost happiness.
Slowly that obsession has been transferring to the beautiful young woman (Bennett) who lives next door. Rachel constructs a vivid fantasy life about the woman and her husband (Evan) which become more important to her than her own life. So important that when she catches a glimpse of the woman cheating on her husband with another man shortly before she disappears, Rachel can’t help but inject herself into the events, even as she slowly but surely makes herself the main suspect in the woman’s disappearance.
Rather than simply focus on Rachel and the twists and turns of her, and the police investigation, “Train” bounces between all three women – Rachel, new wife Anna (Ferguson) and missing woman Megan – contrasting the reality of their lives and the story Rachel has built about them all. Instead of letting them be simple plot points, Anna’s self-awareness at being the ‘other woman’ and Megan’s slow-boiling alienation lurking beneath the perfect exterior of her life are both laid bare.
It offers a surprisingly more in-depth and nuanced look into how depression and alienation can affect a person than most psychological thrillers (which tend to be more focused on abnormal psychology than regular people) bother with. It’s a bit like Antonini meets Hitchcock and when it is doing that, it’s excellent.
Director Tate Taylor has lost none of his skill with actors and the three mother figures which underpin The Girl on the Train are the reason to watch by far. Ferguson and Bennett are fantastically flawed – Megan’s reminiscences about a tragedy in her past and Anna’s frank revelation that she liked being a mistress more than being a wife and mother are among the film’s best moments.
Blunt is saddled with acting ‘drunk’ much of the time, which always makes performance almost become pantomime, but she sells and makes Rachel’s questioning of what she may have done during one of her frequent blackouts the most interesting question in the plot. They’re balanced out by Taylor’s keen eye for building suspense without tricks and displaying violence without fetish. He knows exactly what reaction he wants from his audience in each scene, which is much harder than it sounds.
But in its focus on dysfunctional characters, it reaches too much into the modern cliché of damaged individuals whose problems can be reduced down to a single point, a single element which went wrong and ruined everyone. It misses what Antonini understood so well – that people who feel this way will never understand why, which is what’s really distressing about it.
Rather than add depth to its characters, it ultimately diminishes them, particularly the women who are all defined in one way or another by their ability to have children. The old Freudian focus on the child-parent relationship as the root of future problems (never far away in stories driven by dysfunctional characters) is flipped on its head to suggest children, or at least the parental need for them, have the same effect on their parents. The act of procreation is simultaneously creative and destructive, a traumatic experience which seems joyful on the surface but hides deep and lasting scars beneath.
It’s a nihilistic view of life which distances the audience from the characters, making it difficult to care if any of them succeed. In this, Taylor and his cast and crew have missed what Hitchcock understood so well – hero or villain, the audience needs someone to root for. Strong performances, skilled direction and an interesting premise aren’t enough to prop up the simplistic storytelling and illusory character depth, but they are enough to keep the whole thing from collapsing in on itself. On balance there have been many better films made from a similar notion, but there have been many worse ones as well. Better luck next time.