If you’ll indulge my analogy for just a second, I can try to explain the main source of my admiration-and frustration-for this film. When scientists talk of the Doppler effect, they are explaining the transition of sound from one pitch to another. From closer to further away. From near to far. From one place to another. Just like, say a train. For here is a film that all-to-clearly denotes the image of transition and change for its three protagonists (and indeed its audience) and the events that shape their lives.
Based on Paula Hawkins’ 2015 bestseller of the same name, Tate Taylor’s adaptation centres around the three central characters of Rachel (Emily Blunt), Megan (Haley Bennett), and Anna (Rebecca Ferguson), who through the course of the film will become importantly entwined. Rachel is an emotional and physical wreck, an alcoholic obsessed with stalking her ex-husband Tom (Justin Theroux), and sitting on the same seat on the same train every day just to observe the couple that live two doors down from her old house, viewing them as the pinnacle of romantic love and admiration; Megan is the girl of Rachel’s romantic fantasy, a capable, sexually-charged, yet tragic figure of youth, dissatisfied (much to Rachel’s chagrin) with her husband and her marriage; Anna is Tom’s new wife and the bane of Rachel’s life, for she was the woman Tom left Rachel for. After telling Anna she intends to quit working as child-minder for her daughter, Megan disappears without a trace. All fingers point to Rachel, the last person to see her alive while drunk; but this is a thriller, and nothing is ever as simple as it seems. Or is it?
One of the main things that bugs me about this film is its revelation of the person who is behind Megan’s disappearance. I haven’t read the novel, I’ll be the first to admit that-but I was able to guess who this person was really just about half way into the film. Normally this is half the fun of the thriller genre (and, by extension, its ugly sister, horror); guessing, or at least attempting to guess the identity of the perpetrator is the whole point of this game. Indeed, entire seasons of television shows depend upon this dynamic (CSI, Bones, Criminal Minds, Scream etc.), and while I am a huge lover of thrillers, I usually feel more satisfied finding out that I was totally wrong all along. Here, however, I found it so blindingly obvious. The reason it bugs me so much is that I can’t tell if it is deliberate or not. I can’t pinpoint whether the intention was intended to be obvious all along, or whether it was the result of rushed writing. If it is deliberate, then it follows the line of reasoning that best marks the thriller: that things are never the way they appear and that when events and incidents do happen that are beyond our control, they were often right under our nose all along. If it is not deliberate then it diminishes my respect for the film’s motives. For this reason I think the film needs a second viewing to come to a complete conclusion on the matter.
There are a few other problems ranging from choppy editing (some of the flashbacks are extremely jarring), over-used sex scenes, plot holes, and the delivery of some line readings, but honestly I don’t have that much of an issue with any of these things, and indeed, some of them are kind of necessary for progression. Certainly the thematic side of the film is much stronger than some of its technical elements, but there are thrillers out there done much worse than this (Child ’44, I’m looking at you!). It’s also not an issue with Taylor’s direction, which he proved was excellent in 2011’s The Help.
One of the main criticisms I’ve heard leveled at the film is that the characters are boring, flat, one-dimensional, and seem as if they are reading from cue cards (check the reviews on IMDb to see what I’m talking about). Honestly, I think this is unfair and (as I mentioned earlier) necessary to the thematic nature of the film; each of the three women are in a static, banal phase in their lives, where things just aren’t right and ennui is simply a part of modern American middle-class life that demands its consumers to be unhappy. Indeed, Antonioni made a career out of the so-called ‘boring’.
All three women are experiencing skewed perspectives: Rachel’s alcoholism is rendered wonderfully by some of the best portrayals of drunkenness ever put on film: quick flashes, blurred images, the thought that one did not remember (or correctly interpret) what they had just saw, and the effects of the morning after the blackout (if you wish to seek out the best relating of being drunk in literature, then read John Dos Passos’s 1925 novel Manhattan Transfer; it contains probably the best written image of drunkenness ever put on paper); Megan’s unhappiness is a sexual one: her husband does not satisfy her and bores her with constant talk of having children, she is disillusioned with her job as a babysitter (although, later in the film this reason is explained), and in her own words, is plagued by the fact that she is the “mystery of re-invention” that so many women apparently crave; Anna is the suburban housewife figure of the film, the avatar of capitalist perfection: she has a ‘good’ husband, a large house and a baby that she loves. She seems haunted throughout despite this, disillusioned with her husband’s constant absences and her lack of contact with anyone else.
These skewed perspectives penetrate to the very heart of The Girl on the Train, presenting a flawed triptych of characters desperately trying to comprehend the essential human desires, needs, and ultimately, losses that make up modern life. Tragedy intersperses the pasts of all three women: Rachel’s alcoholism is the result of being unable to conceive a child; Megan’s low self-worth and dissatisfaction with intimacy are related to her similar loss of a child; and Anna’s probable guilt and loneliness derives from the fact that her marriage’s foundation was based upon a guilty action (Tom cheated on Rachel to be with her). Perhaps the ultimate tragic skewing is that Rachel believes she was the last one to see Megan alive, and who she disappeared with, but just cannot remember exactly what she saw in her drink-fuelled bouts.
As per this particular subject matter, there are inevitable shades of Hitchcock; skewed perspectives relate back to Vertigo, transitional narrative to North by Northwest or Strangers on a Train, and the unexpected revelation without question represents Psycho, still the best of all thrillers in this writer’s humble opinion. One doesn’t feel overwhelmed by this, however as Taylor manages to keep the film surprisingly personal while simultaneously generic, which isn’t a bad thing. Thrillers only fail when they mindlessly ape Hitchcock, but here it merely channels his style, all the more to its advantage.
To conclude, I would again refer the reader back to my original assertion: The Girl on the Train is a film dead-set on representing transition and change. The very image of the train itself is the embodiment of moving from place to place, while passively observing, discovering and, ultimately learning when to stay on and where to get off. Indeed, Rachel proudly expresses at the end of the film that, “I’m not the girl I used to be”. None of us ever are.
Director: Tate Taylor
Screenwriter: Erin Cressida Wilson
Cast: Emily Blunt, Haley Bennett, Rebecca Ferguson, Justin Theroux, Luke Evans, Lisa Kudrow
Producer: Jared LeBoff, Marc Platt
Director of Photography: Charlotte Bruus Christensen
Music: Danny Elfman
Run time: 112 Minutes
The Girl on the Train was released on 5 October.