The Girl on the Train February 6, 2017
The biggest mistake Tate Taylor’s adaptation of The Girl on the Train makes is its undervaluing of what made the novel such an absorbing read in the first place. A psychological thriller and resident bestseller written by Paula Hawkins, the book’s essentially a whodunit Agatha Christie’d be taken aback by, featuring red herrings aplenty and a whiplash inducing plot twist to rival the greatest hits of Hitchcock.
However effective its detours into intrigue were, though, the best thing about The Girl on the Train was its trio of heroines, who, having been the women society’s wanted them to be for their entire lives, suddenly find their well-groomed personas cracking in the face of crippling self-doubt and day to day existences incapable of sustaining them.
They’re all in Erin Cressida’s Wilson’s screenplay, and they’re perfect cast. But rather than serving as the fascinating three-dimensional creations they were in the novel, they instead are strictly featured in the film as dull catalysts to push the chicaneries of the source forward.
Here, they aren’t the people we familiarized ourselves with on the page. They’re stereotypes, stereotypes of alcoholism, of marital bliss on the verge, and of damaged goods wearing a facade of beautiful ordinariness with waning enthusiasm. They only exist to keep the story chugging away like a locomotive on its way off the rails.
Such would be fine if The Girl on the Train weren’t based on material so accomplished, material that, for a time, inspired acclaim so loud it moved many critics to bolster it up as “the next Gone Girl.”
But its cinematic counterpart’s lack of substantiality makes it hard for anyone to enthusiastically grasp it. Fans of the novel will find it ploddingly oversimplified, and the unfamiliar will find it confusing and melodramatic. Apart from its final act, which lifts the explosive finale of its source from page to screen with bombastic flavor, the film’s a dud, more closely resembling a Lifetime thriller than the suspenseful opus it had the potential to be.
It stars a superlative Emily Blunt as Rachel, a woman who’s lost everything she’s ever worked for – her husband (Justin Theroux), her dream job, her home, and her chances at motherhood – to the bottle. Acting as the character the movie’s title takes its inspiration from, she does little besides ride on the train traveling between her apartment (shared with an endlessly patient roommate memorably played by Laura Prepon) and the city. Sitting alone with her thoughts, filling her travel cup with cheap vodka to pass the time, Rachel never fails to wallow in her self-pity and go further down her hole of miserable alcoholism.
Lately, though, she’s become enraptured with the couple living in one of the homes she passes every morning (a home that happens to sit next door to the house she used to live in with her husband, which is now being occupied by him, his new wife, Anna [Rebecca Ferguson], and their newborn baby).
The couple is Megan (Haley Bennett) and Scott (Luke Evans), who are young, beautiful, and, seemingly, dreadfully happy together. Rachel imagines that Megan is the self-possessed woman who she never was, who she wants to be; Scott is the husband who retains his masculinity through the years and loves his wife unconditionally. She craves their apparent domestic euphoria. She used to have it herself.
But all fantasies come crashing down when Rachel sees Megan kissing another man. Instilling her with rage – how a person who has it all is willing to throw it all away flummoxes her – she goes out and tries to drink away the pain brought on by seeing someone she’s never met disappoint her so.
When she wakes up the following morning, however, clear is that damage wasn’t only done to herself and her dignity. Covered in blood and bruises, and with no memory of the night before (only a horrifying video saved onto her phone is able to briefly capture her emotional state), all wouldn’t be much out of the ordinary if it weren’t immediately reported that Megan has gone missing. Rachel, while semi-suspicious of her own place in the case, takes it upon herself to play Nancy Drew and get to the bottom of Megan’s disappearance. The answers, to her dismay, hit close to home.
And they’d hit us closer to home too if The Girl on the Train ran with less thickly spread conventionality. As it went with his breakout, 2011’s The Help, Taylor’s a director with a knack for casting and for staging but without the nerve necessary to promote a risk or a spotlighting of emotional nakedness. Such issues weren’t as obvious in The Help because it was so funny and so warm. But they’re amplified in The Girl on the Train – we can feel the masterpiece lurking beneath it. And since it’s more blueprint than masterstroke, one cannot say it’s so much a bad film as much as it is a film comprised of missed opportunities and unexplored dramatic terrain.
That’s a shame, considering the consistently great work by its ensemble. All are first-rate, but it’s the women who stand out the most – these performances would all be Oscar worthy if The Girl on the Train had a single grain of authenticity to be found within its two hours.
Blunt hurdles herself toward the center of Rachel’s psyche and, in the process, embodies her with a ferocious verisimilitude that’s sometimes frightening to behold. Blunt carries the movie on her slight shoulders, even if the movie sometimes threatens to undermine her potency. Ferguson is striking as a typical other woman who finds herself at a crossroads now that sneaking around a married woman’s back is no longer her forte, and Allison Janney, as the cynical detective probing Megan’s disappearance, wryly steals scenes. Bennett, an upstart deservedly rising in the ranks as a result of several high profile parts in major features last year, makes the most of a role that doesn’t deserve her immense skill.
The film’s utmost accomplishment is the way it always remains compulsively watchable, though a lot of that watchability is fattening, given that it’s attentive toward grisly detail and caters to overwrought dramatics capable of even making Douglas Sirk roll his eyes. Fact of the matter is is that The Girl on the Train is a dumbed down popcorn movie when it should have been a supremely intelligent execution of modern-day Hitchcockian suspense (with pangs of the ‘90s erotic thriller, too). And that hurts, especially since we can so clearly see the underlying classic trying to break free from its chains of