The Girl on the Train

The Girl on the Train

Tate Taylor (2016)

 

If you’ve read the best-selling mystery-thriller on which Tate Taylor’s new film is based, I’m not sure whether you’ll be happy with the adaptation: I have not read Paula Hawkins’ bestselling novel myself, so for me the greatest pleasure in the film is certainly the surprise revelation of who the killer is. But if you don’t have that to look forward to, the film doesn’t have all that much left to offer, other than a convincing central performance by Emily Blunt.

Ms. Blunt, fresh from her triumphant role in Sicario, is putting together a solid case for consideration as one of the premiere actresses of her generation. As the film’s protagonist, the alcoholic and rather pathetically voyeuristic Rachel, Blunt manages to engage our sympathy while at the same time arousing our frustration as she goes through the motions of her life, a passenger looking from a train window at the lives of others, and maybe even enraging us when she tries to live out her fantasies by engaging in the lives of the people she has been observing.

If you actually aren’t already familiar with the plot, it begins with Rachel, riding the Metro-North train twice a day past her old neighborhood on the way to and from what we assume is a job in New York. She is obsessed with a woman (Megan, played by Haley Bennett—currently also to be seen in The Magnificent Seven), whose life with husband Scott (Luke Evans of the Hobbit movies) she idealizes as the “perfect” life, and gushes in voiceover “She’s everything I want to be.” Oddly, Megan lives just a few doors down from what used to be Rachel’s own house, and in fact works as a nanny for Rachel’s ex-husband Tom (Justin Theroux) and his new wife Anna (Rebecca Ferguson), for whom he left her and with whom he now has an infant child.

When Rachel sees Megan seemingly kissing another man on her deck as the train speeds by, Rachel is outraged, apparently seeing this betrayal as Megan’s throwing away the perfect life that Rachel wishes she had.  There is also in Rachel’s mind a connection between Anna and Megan, whom she now lumps together as “whores.” That night she goes to the old neighborhood while blind drunk, and sees Megan jogging by. It was actually not clear to me whether it was Megan or Anna she was seeing, chasing, and calling “whore.” Or maybe both at different times. But things are, I guess, supposed to be confused here, as Rachel blacks out and doesn’t awaken until some time later.

Things get particularly sticky when Rachel learns that Megan has disappeared. When she shoves herself into Scott’s life, posing as a friend of Megan’s, in order to reveal to him Megan’s supposed infidelity, it raises the suspicions of the police investigator (Allison Janney), especially when Megan turns up dead. Did Scott kill Megan? Did Rachel, during the period she had blacked out? Did the mysterious lover on the deck?

The story is told partially through a number of flashbacks—several to the night on which Rachel blacked out while pursuing Megan, some to the scene with Megan and the lover on the deck, some to earlier points in Rachel’s marriage—and these are sometimes true, sometimes misremembered or lost in Rachel’s alcoholic haze. It keeps us guessing, and at times confused. As an audience we, like Rachel, are never quite sure about what is true, at least until the end.

Now this in itself is not a bad thing: it is an interesting approach to the depiction of the unreliable narrator, and those who have read the book can decide whether this confusion seems in keeping with Hawkins’ intent. What is less forgivable is this: Without giving away any spoilers, let me say that certain revelations occur toward the end of the film that help restore Rachel’s memories of the fateful night, and at the same time clue the audience in as to what really happened. But a good mystery needs to provide some sort of clue as to the guilty party before the truth is revealed, so that an attentive reader or viewer has the satisfaction of solving the mystery. Not providing the clues and then revealing the answer at the end is like a crossword puzzle that gives you no clue for 58 down or 65 across, but then at the very end tells you what words to fill in the slots with. Kind of takes the fun out of playing the game. Again, only those who have read the book will know whether this approach reflects the author’s, or is the concoction of Taylor and his screenwriter (Erin Cressida Wilson).

Taylor’s remarkable success in adapting the bestseller The Help to the screen in 2011 probably had a great deal to do with his snagging the assignment to do the same with Hawkins’ book. But Taylor’s own Mississippi roots gave him an inside advantage in recreating the world of The Help. There seems to be no such advantage here, and in addition to the difficulties already noted, I was troubled by a few other aspects of the film: First, it moved very slowly in places, especially in the beginning. We have some very, shall we say, leisurely voiceover monologues by the three chief women in the plot, providing us with exposition in what is unquestionably the least dramatic possible way. I don’t mind admitting that I found myself dozing as these monologues plodded on and on. Secondly, there were aspects of character that seemed unmotivated and that seemed to have little to do with the plot: we find that Megan, for instance, is a compulsive liar. Why? Why is she like this, and why is it necessary for the story? These questions may be answered in the novel, but things seems unclear in the film. As do Anna’s motivations, especially in the end. She is apparently supposed to be cold, but her seeming stoicism makes it difficult to read her in the end, and leaves me wondering just what she was about.

Which brings us back to the performances. Evans gives us an interestingly flawed grieving but jealous husband, who seems always to have a streak of violence just below the surface. Bennett manages to give life to Megan, although the script doesn’t give her all that much to go on—or maybe I should say it surrounds her with a lot of hints about her life that just don’t get developed. In what is little more than a cameo, Lisa Kudrow gives a memorable turn as someone from Rachel’s former life.

But it is really Blunt’s movie. Her lost, pitiable Rachel, with her reckless boozing and complete inability to take any constructive steps to improve her life, is an unsettling and poignant creation that goes beyond the boundaries of this fairly conventional genre film, and raises it above itself.  I’m giving this one two Jacqueline Susanns and half a Tennyson, chiefly on the strength of Blunt’s performance.

 

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