Hitchcock is undoubtedly one of the best filmmakers of all time, a legendary icon of 20th century film. He has been rightfully named the master of suspense and no other has quite yet been able to match him. As a result, there haven’t been many psychological thrillers that have matched up to his either. The Girl on the Train however, directed by Tate Taylor, is pretty close and can be best described as the return of the Hitchcockian thriller.
It boasts all of the vital elements for a superb and successful psychological thriller that even Hitchcock himself would approve of. After all, he perfected them. What are these vital elements? Starting with the characters, it would not be the same without a strong, cool blonde female who is present in many of Hitchcock’s films. In The Girl on the Train we have Megan, a young blonde who is of course beautiful too, who seems to have everything in life that the lead character Rachel wants so badly. Then there is an innocent man accused, which in this case is the Rachel. It turns out blondes do not have more fun as Megan soon goes missing, and it is Rachel who becomes a prime suspect in her disappearance. But is she an innocent person accused? Did she or didn’t she hurt Megan? These are questions that make this a perfect thriller.
Then there’s the psychological aspect, where the lead character often battles with their own minds, portraying an abnormal psychological state and behaviour. No different in this film, Rachel battles with her own mind as she struggles to cope with life, resulting in alcohol abuse. Her ever-growing dependency on alcohol causes her to become mentally unstable, suffering from memory loss and a dissolving sense of reality. Her loss of memory during the night in question when Megan disappeared means that neither her or the audience are really sure if she did have something to do with Megan’s disappearance or not. A character with memory loss is a common plot device used in such psychological thrillers, creating that all important suspense that Hitchcock devised so well.
Similarly, in Hitchcock’s Psycho, we have the lead character Marion who portrays some disturbing and strange behaviour by stealing a significant amount of money and then running away with it. Although her behaviour is somewhat abnormal and we’d all go to prison if we did something like this too, the audience is still able to sympathise with her character. Marion’s helplessness is her drive to steal the money, believing that it will solve all of her problems which the audience can relate to. Everyone is guilty of believing that money solves everything at least once in their lives. The audience can relate to Rachel’s character in The Girl on the Train too. Her behaviour becomes increasingly abnormal throughout the film yet we can sympathise with her struggle to deal with her problems, as it is not uncommon to turn to alcohol as a coping mechanism.
The most important and essential element to a Hitchcockian thriller is obviously the suspense. This film cleverly builds much tension, leading to a spectacular climactic plot twist. It is the anticipation of what is yet to come that keeps the audience engaged and Hitchcock knew this all too well, who once said, “there is no terror in the bang, only in the anticipation of it.” He knew that imagination is by far more powerful than an image on screen and this knowledge has clearly been passed onto director Tate Taylor. He manipulates his audience by purposely giving them gaps to fill in. We don’t know exactly what has happened to Megan; all we know is that it can’t be good and that’s a little scarier. Filling in the gaps for yourself may be done so by imagining your own worst fears, which is exactly what Taylor wants. His clever use of camera shots ensures that the audience sees only what he wants them to see.
Unlike many thrillers of the 21st century, The Girl on the Train goes old school, swapping gore and bloodshed for masterful suspense, bringing back the classic style of the Hitchcockian thriller. There are no axe murderers wearing a creepy mask or fierce werewolves on a bloody rampage, only ordinary people like you and me, except one could in fact be a killer. That is the message that most Hitchcock films and The Girl on The Train portrays; it is not the obvious killers that the audience should fear most but the least obviousones. Do we need more Hitchcockian thrillers? Almost definitely. The Girl on the Train shows us just what we’ve been missing.