The Girl on the Train (2016)
Dir. Tate Taylor; Emily Blunt, Haley Bennett, Rebecca Ferguson, Justin Theroux
[2 / 4 stars]
While The Girl on the Train (2016) attempts to leave its viewers feeling deeply unsettled, it instead left me feeling deeply unsatisfied. Based on Paula Hawkins’ bestselling novel by the same name, The Girl on the Train focuses on Rachel (Emily Blunt), an alcoholic prone to blackouts who commutes to and from New York City every day. On the train, she passes by the house where her ex-husband Tom (Justin Theroux), who left Rachel due to her alcoholism, lives with his new wife Anna (Rebecca Ferguson) and their new baby. Two doors down lives Megan (Haley Bennett), a young woman with whom Rachel has recently developed a fascination. Megan and her husband Scott (Luke Evans) seem to Rachel to lead the ideal life; they are beautiful and live in a gorgeous house, and Rachel believes that theirs is the epitome of perfect love. Each day, she rides by on the train, slurping vodka out of a water bottle and gazing at the lives of Megan and Scott. One day, Megan goes missing, and Rachel sees something shocking out the window of the train and soon becomes involved with the investigation.
The film’s weakest point is its lack of character development. The characters are not given room to stretch or develop and thus remain flat and uninteresting. Megan is a beautiful woman whose only relationship is with Scott, a partnership that seems to revolve around their sex life. Anna has little to no depth; she is simply Tom’s clean, new wife and mother of their baby. She is scared of Rachel due to her past drunken episodes, but that’s about the only emotion she ever shows. Tom is the perfect husband, model father, and hard worker who kisses Anna every time he walks in the door and remains empathetic towards Rachel, whom he calls “a very sad person.” All of these people are too beautiful to actually seem real. They look like the actors they are, playing suburban adults rather than actually inhabiting the roles. The film’s characters are common tropes (the trophy wife, the perfect husband), not people with whom its audience can identify. Hawkins’ novel focused on the experiences and thoughts of these women, switching perspectives each chapter from Rachel to Anna to Megan, and it would have been great to see some of that complexity here. In the adaptation, the women all exist in relation to the men in their lives, men who are equally underdeveloped and give the viewer nothing to grab onto.
The only reason I did not give this film one star was because of Emily Blunt, who is the film’s one saving grace. She is unsettling in a way that I have never seen her, hands shaking and eyes restless. Her performance is far and away the best in the film, and whenever she was on screen I could not take my eyes off of her. She strives to make Rachel a complex, tortured character. Watching her crouch behind a trash can in Central Station to pour vodka into her water bottle with fevered eyes or, hands shaking, wrestle with her roommate over a bottle of wine gave the film some life. One drunken scene in which she screams to the bathroom mirror that she’s going to murder Anna is simply chilling. Unfortunately, Blunt’s performance still does not make the film worth watching.
The film’s failings are not, of course, entirely the fault of the actors. The screenplay is unexciting and does not allow for full character development, and the cinematography and score are also unexceptional. Aside from a few shaky cam scenes when Rachel is drunk, nothing in the film’s production was particularly interesting. A mixture of close-ups and swish panning shots into flashbacks, it is a film that is visually unimpressive.
Finally, the film also uses violence in a way that is repulsive. When dealing with topics like alcoholism and murder, I expected the film to be disturbing at times; however, these scenes were not well done or crafted with any important effect. As a young woman, some sequences made me deeply uncomfortable. Perhaps that was the director’s intention, but it was too much. If the film had been better made, it would not have needed to rely on brutality.
It is easy to compare The Girl on the Train to its contemporary Gone Girl (2014), which also focuses on lies and deception in a small suburban town. However, Gone Girl features characters that are complex and creates a coherent narrative while The Girl on the Train never seems fully connected. It is a film that, after it ends, is easy to forget.