Any discussion about The Girl on the Train should begin and end with the movie’s star, Emily Blunt. The actress delivers the most searing depiction of alcoholism on the big screen since Nicolas Cage’s Oscar-winning performance in Leaving Las Vegas. From her ruddy face, to her slightly slurred speech and wobbly motion, Blunt inhabits wholly the character of Rachel Watson. She’s an incredibly damaged woman, keeping her drinking barely under enough control to believably be a functioning member of society. If she were in a better movie, Blunt would be a shoo-in for her own Oscar nomination next year.
Unfortunately, the rest of The Girl on the Train lets Blunt down. The movie’s biggest problem is one of point-of-view. While Blunt renders her character with unbelievable skill, the movie shows less skill when it contrives a murder mystery by relying too heavily on Rachel’s bleary recollection of events.
The story begins with the mournful narration of Rachel as she rides the commuter train in and out of New York City every day for work. She tells us about the houses she sees, and how she imagines the personal lives of the strangers who pass by on their balconies or in their back yards. It’s at this point that we begin to suspect Rachel isn’t telling us everything she knows, or that maybe even she can’t quite put the pieces together herself in her alcoholic haze. Because of her own limitations, the movie changes perspective to introduce us to the people Rachel fantasizes about from her seat on the train. Some of them she actually knows in real life.
Tom is Rachel’s ex-husband, and Anna is his new wife. She’s also the woman with whom Tom cheated on Rachel, and they have a new baby together. Their nanny, Megan, lives a few doors down, and she is the one Rachel has become most fixated on during her fantasy filled train rides. When Megan goes missing, Rachel is forced to confront her own fractured memories of what happened the night she got off the train in a drunken stupor near Megan’s house.
There’s a rich history in storytelling of using unreliable narrators to keep the audience off-kilter until the final surprise unfolds. From Frances in the silent film The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari to Verbal Kint in The Usual Suspects, film is no exception. The problem with the approach here is that almost every point of view we get in The Girl on the Train is unreliable.
Rachel’s foggy memories of what happened the night Megan went missing are only the start. We discover Tom might have his own dark secrets, Megan might or might not be carrying on an affair with her therapist, and Megan’s husband, Scott, might be intensely controlling of Megan and dangerous. Mix all these maybes with a structure that haphazardly flashes back and forth to the present as a way to keep the audience in a manufactured state of confusion. The end result is a little bit of a mess.
There are some genuinely affecting moments throughout the film. Blunt’s unmoored looks of desperation as she feverishly fills a reusable water bottle with straight vodka before a train ride home is one. Some of them feel tacked on, though, unconnected to the central mystery. A good example is when Megan makes a heart-wrenching confession to her therapist about the fate of her first child. Actress Haley Bennett brings Megan’s anguish to life in her devastating monologue late in the film. It would have been more impactful still if it didn’t come out of nowhere.
The Girl on the Train does have some interesting things on its mind about power dynamics and how being in a controlling relationship can destroy the person being controlled. That theme is never allowed to fully blossom, though, because the movie is too intent on wowing the audience with the labyrinthine plot twists of the murder mystery. This also leads to several frustrating narrative dead ends.
Such is the case with Allison Janney, who is good as Detective Sgt. Riley, the investigator in charge of finding out what happened to Megan. As good as Janney is, her character serves almost no purpose other than to be the obligatory law enforcement presence in the aftermath of the climax. Megan’s therapist, Dr. Kamal Abdic (played by Edgar Ramírez), is also given annoyingly opaque motives purely to add more layers to the plot’s mystery. Megan is depicted as being sexually voracious and, depending on the scene, Dr. Abdic either rebuffs or succumbs to her advances. This must be lost in translation, as The Girl on the Train novel apparently makes his reaction to her seduction very clear, but the movie is confusingly coy about it.
It seems lazy to compare The Girl on the Train with 2014’s Gone Girl, since both share the word girl in the title. It’s instructive to do so, though, because Gone Girl succeeds in its storytelling while The Girl on the Train goes way off-track. Both films center on unreliable narrators unraveling a mystery. Gone Girl is a masterful study in incredibly tight plotting and confrontational points of view; The Girl on the Train is needlessly bloated and gets lost in its confusing points of view. The story that the earlier film tells got under my skin and made me question my own beliefs about relationships, all while delivering a taut whodunit. This movie delivers an only slightly engaging mystery while failing at its attempts to do anything more interesting. In the end, Emily Blunt really is the only reason to talk about The Girl on the Train.
Why it got 3 stars:
- This really is only a 2.5 star movie, but Blunt's performance adds a lot. Without it, The Girl on the Train would be forgettable.
Things I forgot to mention in my review, because, well, I'm the Forgetful Film Critic:
- Thankfully the movie does make more sense than the trailer that I saw approximately 1,500 times in the months leading up to the movie's release. I really couldn't make heads or tails out of the story from that trailer. Was I the only one?
- Speaking of the trailer, the worst line of the whole movie was included in it. "I read once that when a train hits, it can rip the clothes right off you." In the context of the movie, the line is spoken in apropos of nothing. In the real world, the only reaction a person could have to those words being spoken in the context they are would be "Um...Ok?"