IN CINEMAS NOW
RUNNING TIME: 112 min
REVIEWED BY: Dr Lenera, Official HCF Critic
Rachel Watson, an alcoholic who divorced her husband Tom after she caught him cheating on her with a woman named Anna, still takes the train to work daily despite having been fired from her job. The journey always passes the house she used to live in with Tom, who still resides there with Anna and their child. She starts watching a couple who live a few houses down – Megan and Scott Hipwell – and sees them as perfect, though that all changes when Rachel sees Megan embracing another man, triggering painful memories of Tom’s infidelity. Then Megan goes missing on the same morning Rachel wakes up with a horrible hangover, various wounds and bruises, and no memory of the night before….
Incorporating everything from heated melodrama to feminist social commentary to psychological character study to mystery – but not really being the tense amnesia thriller suggested by the trailer and never really settling down – The Girl On The Train frustrates as much as it intrigues and is overall a bit of a mess. Much has been made of the fact that Paula Hawkins’s bestelling novel has been relocated from England to the US, that a whole new character Monica has been added, and that the frumpy, unattractive heroine in her 40’s has been replaced by Emily Blunt. The person I saw the film with had read and was a fan of the book, and thought that, despite a few minor issues, the film captured it fairly well. As a filmgoer who hasn’t read the book, I was left with the impression that what probably worked very well on the printed page didn’t work too well on film, but then I’m probably a much more critical movie watcher than my companion and had high hopes for this movie which weren’t really fulfilled. It does have its strong points, notably a performance from Emily Blunt that could be her finest yet, though it’s so good that while I was watching the film I kept thinking that her character, and Blunt’s rendering of it, belonged in something better.
Now viewers going into this film without knowing much should be warned that it tells its story in quite an unusual way that doesn’t really come off and makes it hard to follow in places, something which even my companion remarked upon and she’d read the book! The novel switches back and forth from the points of view of Rachel, Anna and Megan, and the movie does the same, but the film also complicates matters by having lots of flashbacks, while this is also a film where the camera most certainly does lie. Considering that Once Upon A Time In America is one of my favourite films, I’m perhaps not the right person to complain about flashbacks and convoluted storytelling, but it threatens to get out of control in The Girl On The Train, and quite often there seem to be scenes which would worked better if placed in a different place from where they actually are. I don’t think that screenwriter Erin Cressida Wilson and director Tate Taylor quite had a handle on how best to make this tale work onscreen, and I wouldn’t be surprised if you could re-edit the film in a way which would notably improve it.
We initially focus on Rachel before meeting the other two women, and she gets a bit more screen time than they do. Watching the pitiful alcoholic of the first half of the film living her desperately sad life is very affecting, and Taylor enhances her feelings of claustrophobia and despair with lots of close-ups of Blunt’s face – even if adding some red in the cheeks and dry lips seems like a half hearted attempt to make her unattractive – and muted colours. Having her maintain her English accent while being surrounded by Americans was a good choice and increases the sense of her being an outcast. Still, the portrayal of alcoholism, avoiding caricature and the temptation to go over the top, is one of the most honest and convincing I’ve seen in a film in some time. The performance and the direction here are spot on and very clever as we really feel sorry for this person despite her self-destructive nature which often tends to badly affect others too, plus also her slight creepiness. After all, this person is basically a stalker and almost runs off with her ex-husband’s baby. Blunt manages to balance all this so well and to be honest I would have been happy for the whole film to have just been about her character travelling back and forth on her train, though one major flaw in the story weakens even these parts of the film. Rachel seems to be able to see an awful lot out of her train window incredibly clearly considering how fast the train ought to be travelling [not to mention that the folk she’s observing seem of an awfully exhibitionist nature]. It’s a careless detail which could have easily been fixed and ought to have been [the book, in fact, got around this issue], but evidently nobody noticed or cared.
As well as Rachel, we’re also getting the viewpoints of Rachel’s ex-husband’s second wife [with whom he was cheating while married to Rachel] Anna, who is terrified of her, and Megan, who lives down the street from Anna and has been hired by her to look after her and Tom’s newborn until Megan suddenly decides she wants to leave the job. Megan is herself married, to a guy named Scott, but is cheating on him with her psychiatrist Kamal. To Rachel, Megan is someone to look up to and is the woman she wants to be, but actually she’s very damaged with a troubled past. The story would have worked better at this point if we’d been allowed to believe Rachel’s views of Megan for longer than we actually are before having them dashed before our eyes, because it would have then made the reveal of her indulging in an adulterous affair more powerful, but instead it’s just one example of many slightly baffling choices made which weaken matters, as if somebody working on the film who didn’t want it to fully work decided to sneak into the editing suite at night and make haphazard changes to try to derail [sorry] it.
Anyway, it soon seems that Rachel may have killed Megan, perhaps having mistaken her for Anna in one of her drunken stupors, while she can’t recall what happened on that fateful night, though of course you just know that she’s going to conveniently remember stuff when the plot calls for it. The mystery, to be honest, ceased to be a mystery about two thirds in for me, even if it’s good that most of the main characters could be a murderer, and the violent final act is rather substandard thriller stuff handled with little real conviction and doesn’t really do justice to what the story really seems to be about – how so many people, especially women, are trapped in poor lives of their own making. Even though I got the impression that some major scenes had been removed, the script does a good job presenting three main characters who are all very flawed and who convince as fleshed out human beings, though the somewhat feminist point of view of course means that the men are not as rounded as the women – in fact they almost seem like cartoons of typical male archetypes – and not very likeable at all. Meanwhile the very brief but plentiful sex scenes are presented as very cold, mechanical and loveless.
Taylor’s direction, while initially strong, begins to give the impression that he wasn’t really the right choice for this, its dark nature being something which he seems to be a bit uncomfortable with. Several scenes exist where shots seem to have just been put together randomly or which far more could have been done with, and when all else fails he just plonks in another close-up of Blunt. I began to think of how somebody like Brian De Palma or David Fincher [though all these comparisons with Gone Girl are rather misleading – the two films aren’t very similar at all] would have gone to town on this material. Haley Bennett and Rebecca Ferguson both play their roles well and the men do the best with what they have. Danny Elfman’s minimalist, electronic-heavy score doesn’t sound much like him at all and hints at a feeling of real evil, though it almost feels like he was hired to emulate Trent Reznor. The Girl On The Train is a film that seems to be getting widely mixed reviews and I have the oddest feeling that it will come across better to me on a second viewing. For the time being though, it’s a picture which has the right elements in place and which possibly could have been terrific, but which just doesn’t live up to the hype and which stumbles far too much in execution to be considered any kind of success, despite the outstanding performance of its main star.