by Ken Bakely
There are many movies which disappoint us because of what they try to achieve but ultimately do not. Tate Taylor’s The Girl on the Train disappoints because we are never quite sure what it wants to achieve in the first place. It’s a confused film, jolting erratically from scene to scene, told in a nonlinear way and using that approach as some kind of excuse for dashing any type of narrative rhythm at all. Even some good acting can’t save it, as the screenplay fails to give the actors consistently engaging material, and the symptoms of this disjointed nature become more severe as the 112 minute runtime moves forward. By the time it ends, we see what has happened, and we have predicted it because the storyline is quite uncomplicated under all the mess, but the question of how things got there is a difficult one to answer.
Based on Paula Hawkins’ novel of the same name, The Girl on the Train follows Rachel (Emily Blunt), a girl on a train. She is in her early thirties, unemployed, recently divorced, and an alcoholic. Often blacking out while drinking, she loses large portions of her memory and can’t hold a job. To fool her roommate Cathy (Laura Prepon) into thinking that she is employed, Rachel takes the train to New York City, and back to their apartment in the immediate suburbs every day. She sits there, staring out the window for hours on the back-and-forth voyage, sucking back vodka in a water bottle. The route takes her past the home of her now ex-husband Tom (Justin Theroux), and his new wife Anna (Rebecca Ferguson). New neighbors recently moved in nearby – a nice-looking young couple named Scott (Luke Evans) and Megan (Haley Bennett).
Rachel sees them as an archetype, and watching them embrace on their balcony in the morning as the train drives past, projects onto them the wonderful fantasies of domestic bliss which she never experienced. Her increasingly prying curiosities and obsessions get the better of her. She begins to wander around her old neighborhood, learns more about these two supposedly perfect people. Among other things, an affair, between Megan and her psychologist (Édgar Ramírez), deeply enrages Rachel, as it ruins her own expectations of the idealism she desired. One night, she blacks out drinking at the train station, and comes to the next morning at home, covered in blood which isn’t hers. She hears that Megan has gone missing. Rachel fears the worst. Did she do it? Could she have? The memories are so faint, but the details will be pieced together, and the truth, whatever it is, will emerge.
This story has received numerous comparisons to Gone Girl, another recent mystery novel featuring an unreliable female narrator which was turned into a movie. The similarities stop there, both in terms of story structure and quality. Whereas Gillian Flynn’s tale features a sly character who has perfect plans to be executed in precise ways, The Girl on the Train essentially has its protagonist playing a very high-stakes game of “drunk detective” – when a person, recently cognitively impaired by alcohol, attempts to figure out where they’ve been, what they’ve done, and when they’ve done it.
Erin Cressida Wilson’s screenplay is hardly more substantive than this, jettisoning back and forth between the current events being portrayed, and past recollections which are of questionable veracity. They are revised many times as other characters inform Rachel of what actually happened. It is in this mix when the puzzle pieces of the story become clear, obvious to the viewers long before it was probably supposed to. In this way, the film somewhat resembles a repetitive video game. Over and over, we complete the same task – receiving information which we then condition ourselves to question.
It’s hard to argue that Emily Blunt doesn’t give 110%, though. Her performance is complicated and reserved, with palpable apprehensions in her psyche. Moving about, often in a daze, with a weary look on her face, she no longer feels alive, worrying that her vices have not only harmed her, as they have in the past, but led to the death of another person. Her work is one of the best things that the film has to offer.
Certainly there’s not much else: the project can’t excel with its muddled screenplay or uninspired visual palette. Despite being shot on textured 35mm film, bleak overcast skies and underlit interiors resemble a movie shot through dirty dishwater. It’s a fitting visual analogy for the murky story at hand. Taylor’s direction is conducive towards this sludgy potpourri of blandness, creating “tension” through sudden elevations in characters’ voices, people shoving people into walls or on the ground, and an abrupt volume jump in Danny Elfman’s score. The Girl on the Train never cares to develop its characters beyond the pure needs of each individual moment, and therefore nothing ever feels very smart, or organic, or plotted in a meaningful way.