By Vincent Abbatecola
At the start of director Tate Taylor’s mystery thriller, “The Girl on the Train,” Rachel Watson (Emily Blunt), reflects the act of watching people from the seat of her train, wondering about the lives of those she sees, thinking about who they are, what they do, where they are going. Just like her, we’re all guilty of people-watching from time to time, whether we like to admit it or not.
This is an act that brings the main character into the life-changing events of the film, which is based on the 2015 bestselling novel by Paula Hawkins. Despite a few issues with the overall story, the film still benefits from a superb lead performance and competent direction.
Every day and night, Rachel, an unemployed and divorced alcoholic, rides the train into and out of New York City. On her trip, the train always stops in front of a house in a suburb, where Rachel often catches a glimpse of a loving husband and wife, Scott and Megan Hipwell (Luke Evans and Haley Bennett). She views them as an idyllic couple and constantly fantasizes about the life they share. However, one morning, Rachel witnesses something that shatters her romanticized perception of them. When Megan goes missing shortly after, Rachel tries to figure out what happened to her, and her involvement in the search soon makes the detectives believe she may be a suspect.
The character of Rachel may be deeply flawed, but that doesn’t hinder her from being sympathetic. Her flaws make her interesting, and you care about what happens to her. As soon as the film begins, she’s at her seat on the train, keeping to herself and her thoughts, and we see how her loneliness has taken a toll on her, with her eyes revealing a sense of longing that she experiences day to day. However, when it comes time for her character to snap out of her gloom, Blunt expertly displays the change in character Rachel must make in order to find out what happened to Megan. With her quiet intensity from then on, Blunt further shows she has the power to carry a movie and is the main reason why this film works at all; otherwise, the movie would succumb to its issues.
Although the acting is fine all around from the supporting cast, some of the characters are more memorable than others, particularly Justin Theroux as Rachel’s ex-husband and Allison Janney as one of the lead detectives. However, the supporting player who offers the most to the film is Haley Bennett. Her eyes and tone of voice contribute to the palpable air of mystery surrounding her, and we learn a lot about her background throughout the movie, giving us an idea of her motivations behind the things she does. After she continues to disclose more about herself during the film, her best scene comes later in the movie, where she chooses to reveal details of a shattering event from earlier in her life, and we’re given a view of the pain she’s been hiding beneath the facade of the seemingly white-picket-fence perfection of her suburban lifestyle.
Although the screenplay by Erin Cressida Wilson experiences some of the same issues from the novel, it still manages to fix a couple of them, particularly making the narrative more streamlined. In the novel, there were several portions where we didn’t learn anything of importance, but the film takes out all of that tedium to bring us something a little more interesting.
One of the main issues the screenplay has to contend with is overcoming how it’s based on a novel that holds a few similarities to Gillian Flynn’s 2012 bestselling novel, “Gone Girl.” Both stories focus on a woman who goes missing, has multiple narrators, and an unreliable narrator. However, what helps this film separate from “Gone Girl” is how it uses the unreliable-narrator approach. In “Gone Girl,” the narrator was untrustworthy because of the lies they told; but in “The Girl on the Train,” this approach is used with a main narrator who’s untrustworthy because she can’t rely on her memories due to blacking out. This alternate angle for the unreliable narrator helps keep the concept fresh and audiences invested in the main character’s plight.
Seeing as the story involves Rachel trying to recover the memories she loses when blacking out, this requires the narrative to manage transitions back and forth between the present and Rachel’s fractured memories. With the help of editor Michael McCusker, Taylor is able to make this presentation of the story flow smoothly.
With Taylor’s two biggest movies before this being “The Help” and the James Brown biopic “Get on Up,” he shows he has the skill for handling a mainstream thriller, even if the film is hindered by a couple of the problems found in the book. He brings the sense of voyeurism found in Hawkins’ novel, putting us in Rachel’s place as the onlooker of other people’s lives, which is emphasized by an abundance of point-of-view shots.
The novel has several Hitchcockian elements, and Taylor’s direction emphasizes them to good effect. These elements include trains, alcohol, blondes, voyeurism, the double, and placing an average person in significant circumstances. In fact, if the conclusion was less underwhelming and more of the supporting characters had as much depth as the main protagonist, this is a movie I can imagine Alfred Hitchcock directing.
“The Girl on the Train” may not take you to the destination you were exactly hoping for, but it offers a rather entertaining ride for anyone looking for a quick thrill.
Final Grade: B