REVIEW: The Girl On The Train
Emily Blunt, Justin Theroux, Rebecca Ferguson, Hayley Bennett, Luke Evans, Allison Janney
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…a tough-minded, uncompromising film that unpicks the quiet horrors of suburban life…
Proving beyond any shadow of a doubt that big, high-profile, hot-button, zeitgeist-tapping movies don’t have to be upbeat and positive, The Girl On The Train – adapted from Paula Hawkins’ bestselling, provocative novel – comes hurtling into cinemas like one long, anguished scream of pain and suffering. This is “chick lit” of the most sombre variety, a dark, double-proof antidote to the silly sexiness of Fifty Shades Of Grey and the rousing, fist-pumping, femme-led revolution of The Hunger Games.
Those heading in for a “girls’ night out at the movies” will likely leave the cinema enraged and unsettled, rather than uplifted. And for that, The Girl On The Train should be applauded. Though often implausible and occasionally exploitative, this is a tough-minded, uncompromising film that unpicks the quiet horrors of suburban life – infidelity, relationship breakdown, the inability to have children, depression, dishonesty, family dysfunction, male domination – under the ingenious guise of a murder mystery thriller.
Though fans of the novel might question its various changes, the adaptation by Erin Cressida Wilson (a brave and daring scribe, who boasts credits like Secretary, Fur, Chloe, and Men, Women & Children) is a skillful one, keeping the narrative surging forward, while successfully interweaving the characters’ internal monologues through it. The eponymous girl on the train (“The Woman On The Train” would actually be a more appropriate, but obviously less flashy, title) is Rachel Wilson (Emily Blunt), an alcoholic divorcee who laments her broken marriage to Tom (Justin Theroux), who cheated on her with Anna (Rebecca Ferguson), with whom he now has a baby daughter. Rachel escapes her bleary, busted-up life by fantasising about an attractive, hot-and-heavy couple (Hayley Bennett, Luke Evans) that she glimpses from the train window every day on her way to work. But when the woman – who also just happens to be Rachel’s ex-husband’s babysitter – winds up dead, Rachel finds herself caught up in the mystery, and with a jaded, suspicious detective (Allison Janney) snapping at her heels.
The heavy, oppressive atmosphere created by surprise-choice director, Tate Taylor (The Help), successfully lays a dark, obscuring spread of wallpaper over the film’s many cracks. The things that Rachel conveniently witnesses from the window of a speeding train push hard against credulity, and there are also the kind of plot-holes that dot most big-time literary success stories. In an odd twist, however, they’re really the subtext here. The focal point of The Girl On The Train is the character of Rachel, one of the saddest, most deeply flawed female characters ever committed to celluloid. Yes, she does eventually find some quorum of inner strength, but it’s a long, boozy, bloodshot journey getting there. Literally broken in half by grief, Rachel makes a lot of bad decisions, but they’re all believable, rising up constantly from her manifold bad places. Emily Blunt is brilliant in the role: this is much, much more than a beautiful actress egotistically “getting ugly” for a part. Blunt goes deep, and comes up with a nuanced, deeply affecting turn that equals her fine work in the superb thriller, Sicario. She will literally break your heart, and her Rachel is a fascinating creation.
The supporting performances, however, aren’t quite up to her impressive measure. Hayley Bennett (The Magnificent Seven) looks and acts so much like Jennifer Lawrence as to be utterly distracting, while Rebecca Ferguson is so resolutely wooden, lifeless, and unlikeable that it’s difficult to believe that Tom would leave the far livelier Rachel for her. Allison Janney is enjoyably sly and pushy as the cop-on-the-case, but the male characters are all horribly one-dimensional – mean, nasty, unfeeling, self-absorbed – and the actors can’t do much with them. Sure, it’s nice to say that about a Hollywood movie just for a change (and this is definitely a film where the women are front and centre) but should that fact be celebrated, even in a film as deeply and profoundly feminist as this one?
But, ultimately, that’s where the power of The Girl On The Train resides. It’s a feminist film that dares to focus on women who aren’t traditionally and obviously “strong”, but in showcasing such a layered and complex character as Rachel Wilson, it does what so few Hollywood movies do: it embraces and anchors itself to a woman who is far, far from perfect. And as played so brilliantly by Emily Blunt, she makes The Girl On The Train grimly, unforgettably absorbing.