The trouble with attempting to transmute Paula Hawkins’ dark thriller to the screen (11m copies of the book have been sold) is that too many people know its torrid twists — and literary artifice easily gets snarled up. While the director, Taylor (The Help, 2011), is no slouch, neither is he a grandmaster of the art. But as this film’s fragments cohere it becomes far more than a rerun of Gone Girl or (way back) Fatal Attraction. The messiness of its characters is deliberate; you have to let the technique sink in.
The plot relies on false memories, amnesia, psychotic episodes, and reversals of time. We see these from the perspective of Rachel (Blunt). In a remarkable performance, she plays a deserted woman (or "girl") who has fallen deep into the bottle, is tormented by her former husband Tom (Theroux) and his infidelities, and is virtually living on the street. Rachel travels meaninglessly to and from her former workplace, here relocated from England to New York, and communicates hopelessness to all around. Female portraits of such desolation are rare and here a star lives it to her nerves.
From her commuter’s window, Rachel each day sees two seemingly separate but finally entangled households: that of Tom and his new wife (Ferguson) and the false idyllic home of Megan (Bennett) and Scott (Evans). On the latter she confers fantasies of romantic allegiance and perpetual sensual fulfilment. They are what she wished to be before Tom’s adultery.
The power of the film (however flawed) resides in its exploration (some have called it a daytime soapie) of the Fall of Woman. This is not altogether a new direction in cinema, but seemingly a surge away from men as abhorrent abusers and faith-breakers. It isn’t, quite, but suggests a trend. Women can be as crazy as men, not least in missions of the heart.
The film fuses Rachel and a number of others — mainly Janney as a wise cop; though a dubious male shrink (Ramirez) further clogs the tale. Rachel should be compared with strong women in past Hollywood films – one thinks of the femmes fatales of the noir movies of the past mid-century: but also of the women who are subjected to cruelty and abnegation, yet survive. Rachel seems essentially one of us: a housewife (her stated desire) reduced to a thing.
Rachel’s visions (presented as such, with narration) are frequently incorrect and repellent false memories implanted by Tom. And to this often confusing brew must be added the other partnerships — not just Tom and his new wife Anna, but the falsehood of Rachel’s fantasy of the perfect marriage between Megan and Scott.
This is just too many people — plus cross-hatched relationships — to hold together as a film. Nor is there any semblance of irony or alleviation of its dankness, yet in my virginal exposure to the plot, it seemed to fall into place particularly in the closing scenes (and denouements). However, it needs to be seen without preconceptions — the hostility of some major critics churns against any specific awareness of how it all turns out — which is not how it begins or evolves. Yet making sense of a film is not necessarily to exclude enjoyment and tension, of which there is a great deal.
So if The Girl on the Train does indeed run off the rails at times, the focus remains largely on Rachel, and Blunt’s wondrously wounded eyes. Her perceptions, however blurred and even false, are the basis of a thriller that is well worth seeing.
But if only it had been written and directed by Alfred Hitchcock!
The Girl on the Train
Directed by Tate Taylor; script by Erin Cressida Wilson
Emily Blunt, Rebecca Ferguson, Haley Bennett, Justin Theroux, Luke Evans, Allison Janney, Edgar Ramirez