The Girl on the Train: Sound, Fury, and Nothingness


The irrevocable aftershocks of Miranda Priestly’s pink slip.

The Girl on the Train is a fine movie – right up to when you start thinking about it. With rapid-fire editing, a studied leading performance, and a story that certainly reserves its biggest surprise for last, it has all the basic elements of a well-done thriller. Yet the more you try to put the pieces of the movie together, the more you discover the many weak links in its underlying premise and characters. Like in any good mystery, you always feel like something isn’t quite right – except this time, it’s the story itself that’s off.

The Girl on the Train recounts the mishaps of Rachel Watson (Emily Blunt), an unemployed alcoholic who spends most of her time either drinking or raging at her ex-husband Tom (Justin Theroux). Twice a day, she takes the train to and from New York City, where she always passes the house of a couple who regularly kiss in plain view of the tracks. Over time, observing this latter, seemingly happy couple becomes Rachel’s obsession, to the point that her only reason for taking the train becomes catching a glimpse of them. She fantasizes about their lives, gives them names, and projects all her hidden longings onto their picture-perfect image. One day, however, she notices the wife willingly kissing a stranger. Her little glass house of vicarious marital bliss abruptly shattered, Rachel only grows further distraught when, days later, the same woman, a 26-year old named Megan Hipwell (Haley Bennett), is reported missing. Out of shock and a lack of anything else to do, she decides to start investigating.

The selling point of this movie revolves around Rachel’s uncontrollable alcoholism, which casts serious question marks over everything she claims to see and do. Director Tate Taylor does a good job showing the effects of her addiction on camera. Some of the movie’s creepiest moments are just simple shots of Rachel staring ahead in a drunken trance, eyes dead and zombie-like. Like the jumbled recollections in her brain, moreover, the scenes whip back and forth in a random mixture of past and present, truth and fantasy, clear and forgotten that often leaves you unable to tell what’s actually happening and what’s just paranoia. Adding only more turbulence are the subplots involving Megan and Tom’s new wife Anna (Rebecca Ferguson), which are inserted throughout the movie to establish an ironic, sobering, yet equally disordered counterpoint to Rachel’s nonstop fantasizing. Mixed together, it all creates a dizzying whirlpool of appearances and reality that doesn’t clear up until the grand finale.

Look a little closer, however, and you’ll find a story skeleton too worn with holes to put this color show to any use. First, the key to solving the mystery essentially centers on little more than Rachel’s poor memory. Far from involving any meticulous research or careful thinking, her plan to discover the truth simply entails wandering from random hunch to random hunch in the hope of miraculously recalling what happened in a tunnel one week before. In fact, Rachel’s key breakthrough only occurs thanks to a far-too-coincidental encounter with an old friend that “activates” her memory cells. Second, the villain doesn’t get enough screen time. Taylor cut many crucial scenes from the book that built a portrait of this person as trustworthy and understanding. As a result, the end reveal, while completely unexpected, abruptly and implausibly transforms a nice, ordinary person into a ruthless, crazily monstrous killer; it feels like a burst of surprise just for the sake of surprise. And finally, partially thanks to these two reasons, the majority of the movie carries little dramatic tension. Large portions of it are either devoted to subplots that quietly fizzle out or a disorganized ride through Rachel, Megan, and Anna’s memories, a ride that, in spite of the aforementioned editing spectacle, barely contributes any build-up or suspense around the underlying mystery. Red herrings are meant to be annoying deviations, but these ones often feel like they’re just here to pad a story that doesn’t know anywhere better to go.

In the end, the film’s biggest problem is Rachel herself. Emily Blunt has come a long way since playing the annoying, fashion-sensitive assistant in The Devil Wears Prada. Here, she embodies her alcoholic character, shaky hands and all, to a disturbingly exact degree. Every syllable she speaks bears the mark of a broken soul, a soul desperately searching for anything to give her life even a sliver of meaning. But the character herself is so overly devoted to the bottle that Blunt can’t save Rachel from becoming a caricature. This is a person, after all, who creepily breaks in to her ex-husband’s house, collapses in the middle of public roads, and has embarrassing incidents in public more often than Donald Trump. Even if you can accept the sheer extremity of her blackouts, you still have to deal with the fact that nobody (her roommate, the police, bystanders) gives her anything in response but the occasional verbal scolding. It’s hard to believe she barely endangers her life until the very end and even harder to believe the 180-degree turnaround she makes in the final scene, when she emerges from the solved mystery miraculously sober and optimistic for the future. Good acting aside, Blunt’s character simply isn’t someone you can believe in, least of all as a ridiculously amateur sleuth.

A lot of people have compared The Girl on the Train to Gone Girl, another film about a mysteriously vanishing young woman. The comparison is inapt, and not just because the plots are completely different. While Gone Girl uses style and calculation to create a genuinely fiendish spellbinder, The Girl on the Train over-exploits an alcoholic’s broken memory to hide a simplistic plot under a sparkling surface of tumult. It’s sparkling enough that you might be duped into liking the whole thing. Yet like the “happy” married couple Rachel sees every day on the train, there’s always more than meets the eye. And more, in this case, just isn’t good at all.

The Girl on the Train (2016)

Starring: Emily Blunt, Rebecca Ferguson, Haley Bennett, Justin Theroux, Luke Evans

Running Time: 112 minutes

Rating: R

Produced by: Marc E. Platt

Directed by: Tate Taylor

Written by: Erin Cressida Wilson

Based on the 2015 Paula Hawkins novel of the same name.

Image of Blunt/Rachel from here.