Bleak thrillers that satirize the modern nuclear family seem to be increasing in popularity in recent years. The most prominent example would obviously be Gone Girl, based on Gillian Flynn‘s novel of the same name and directed by David Fincher. The latest film that could classify within this subgenre is The Girl on the Train, which contains many similar elements to Gone Girl, including a mysterious disappearance of a woman, which the film’s events revolve around.
Where The Girl on the Train distinguishes itself, though, is in its forthright presentation. With unbearably over-the-top performances and direction, in addition to an unfocused purpose underlying the story itself, it is an almost unwatchable mess.
The Human Experience
The Girl on the Train is about three very different women: there is Rachel Watson (Emily Blunt), the “girl” of the film’s title, who spends her days drunk on a train, staring out at people through the window, in particular at Megan Hipwell (Haley Bennett), who Rachel imagines to have the perfect life along with her husband Scott (Luke Evans). Megan herself works as a babysitter for Anna Watson (Rebecca Ferguson), a woman who is married to Rachel’s ex-husband Tom (Justin Theroux).
While watching Megan through the train window one day, Rachel sees her kissing a different man than her husband, and is noticeably frustrated that Megan is destroying what she perceives as an ideal life. It is the very next day that Megan goes missing. Rachel is considered a suspect since she was seen around them that day, but, as she was blackout drunk at the time, it’s impossible to know exactly what happened. The resulting events are a slow uncovering of the mystery of Megan’s disappearance.
The character study which opens The Girl on the Train is a hopeful prospect for the film, with some potentially interesting psychological implications. Rachel, who is recently divorced and a serious alcoholic as a result, is clearly projecting her ideas of the “perfect life” onto Megan, a perfect stranger, not knowing what really goes on behind closed doors.
Megan, though, is an empty shell of a person, and is repeatedly abused both physically and emotionally by her husband, with the idea being that something happened in her past which made her simply accept this as a way of life. Anna, on the other hand, hides behind a facade of happiness, choosing to pretend that, since she supposedly has everything she needs – a husband and a child – she is perfectly content.
Lack of Subtlety in Direction and Performances
Once the characters’ true intentions and past lives start to unravel, though, the remainder of The Girl on the Train unravels with it. The film doesn’t so much dip into the emotions of the characters as it does a complete swan dive. All traces of subtlety and restraint are removed in an effort to prod any possible emotion from the audience.
Not too far from the film’s opening, we see Rachel drunkenly speaking with a stranger at a bar, expressing how she observed Megan kissing another man, and that it felt like a stab at her own heart since she identified so readily with her. The scene, and her drunken ramblings in general, reminded me very much of Cate Blanchett‘s character in Blue Jasmine, who would often tangentially discuss her personal life with perfect strangers. Where it separates, though, is in the extreme that director Tate Taylor goes with the material.
During this same bar scene, Rachel and the stranger go to the bathroom, and, in an extremely uncomfortably-angled shot, she continues to loudly shriek her dismay at the Megan situation into the mirror. The scene is clearly meant to provoke an unpleasant reaction, and to gain a sense of just how delirious Rachel is – yet it is so overacted and awkwardly filmed that it was actually hard for me to stifle laughs, which made it far from convincing.
This lack of restraint is likely more due to Tate Taylor‘s direction than in the performances. You can tell that Emily Blunt tries to stay even-headed with the material, though she does occasionally go overboard, such as in the aforementioned bathroom mirror scene. Yet, it’s just as easy to see that this is the heightened level of performance that Taylor was asking for.
The film is ridden with an overly-stylized approach to its material, such as in a use of long, drawn-out moving shots of the train, or of stretches of silence in dimly-lit rooms. A real emphasis is on close-ups of tear-streamed faces, so overused that after a time it was difficult to imagine some of the actors with just a normal expression. And don’t even get me started on the film’s very unprovocative sex scenes, which often felt tacky and out of place amongst the rest of the film.
It’s possible that some of the issues underlying The Girl on the Train are due to a director that was unused to this type of material. Taylor is finely suited as a director of period dramas or biopics, seen in the past with his direction of The Help and Get On Up. The material for this current film, though, is much darker than either of those, and likely more akin to a director that specializes in bleak thrillers. In an effort to duplicate a style similar to someone like David Fincher, yet without the backing to adequately recreate it, the film becomes almost a parody of the genre as a whole.
Despite this approach, Haley Bennett, who plays Megan, is easily the film’s standout performance. Though she is mostly downtrodden and depressed throughout the film’s length, she shows some surprising nuances with her performance, at times managing to be convincingly heartbreaking. Hot off her performance in The Magnificent Seven, and with several more films in the pipeline, it’s my prediction that Bennett, who is often compared to Jennifer Lawrence during her early discoverings, will be considered a true breakout star by the end of the year.
The remainder of the cast is mostly forgettable, with even Rebecca Ferguson not getting nearly as much screen time as either Blunt or Bennett. The film is also, for some reason, peppered with bit performances from a few famous actresses, among them Allison Janney as a police detective, Laura Prepon as the roommate to Rachel, and Lisa Kudrow as an old boss of Tom while Rachel was married to him. It’s distracting, in a film like this, to suddenly see a recognizable face out of nowhere, and the decision to cast these actresses in such small parts was, to me, a bit of a head-scratcher.
Murder Mystery or Character Study?
To compare once more to Gone Girl, there is one additional major difference between that film and the current one. Potentially the most brilliant aspect of Gone Girl is the fact that, halfway through, the film reveals the mystery of the wife’s disappearance (an unexpected reveal that is very reminiscent of Alfred Hitchcock‘s Vertigo). The remainder of the film, then, goes in a completely off-the-wall and excruciatingly intense direction, culminating in one of the more disturbing endings in recent cinema.
In The Girl on the Train, though, the climax and subsequent wind-down of the film are simply still in relation to the mystery of Megan’s disappearance. The film no longer seems interested in the psychological connotations of its characters that seemed so significant at the start, and it instead simply feels like an average, run-of-the-mill mystery. The characters even start to make the type of idiotic decisions that you would more likely see in a B-horror film as opposed to something attempting to be much deeper than that. This, and the actual reveal itself, made the film’s conclusion a true letdown.
To conclude, The Girl on the Train is a film that never quite knows what it wants to be. It attempts to be a psychological character study, a thriller, and a murder mystery told from three different perspectives. What it ends up being, however, is a shallow version of all of these.
With a hyperbolic approach to the material, and, in addition, performances that are exceedingly overblown, the film is a classic example of how even a story with potential could go awry.
What did you think of The Girl on the Train? Share your thoughts below.
The Girl on the Train opened in U.K. cinemas on October 5, in the U.S. on October 7. Find international release dates here.
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