The Girl on the Train is a complex work. It finds itself marooned in a new genre of film and novel, in which the fractured psyche of a female character is central to a perplexing, and often disturbing, mystery. Comparisons to S.J. Watson’s Before I Go to Sleep, and the lurid sexuality and sensationalism of Flynn’s Gone Girl are inevitable; both the novel and the film seem to walk a tightrope between the two. Taylor’s adaptation of the novel isn’t quite as contrived or farcical as Joffe’s take on Before I Go to Sleep; but its grim determination to horrify and confuse viewers prevents it from packing the same punch as Fincher’s bold adaptation of Gone Girl. That is not to say that the film does not have its merits. Emily Blunt plays Rachel, a crumbling alcoholic tormented by her divorce. Viewers witness the world through her booze-tinted gaze, with stumbling POV shots and slurring voiceovers marking her degeneration from a successful PR agent, married to Tom (played with dull-eyed menace by Justin Theroux), to a friendless, unemployed alcoholic, forced to watch her ex husband marry his mistress. Her daily commute to New York allows her to entwine herself in the lives of what appear to be a ‘perfect’ couple, Megan and Scott, immersing herself in the raunchy highs and shattering lows of their marriage. A chance glimpse of an illicit act forces her deeper into their world, and once Megan disappears, Rachel finds herself in a situation that is no longer in her control.
As storylines go, it is pretty weak. Christensen’s cinematography attempts to mask the clear absence of logic and sense within the plot; she transforms their sanitised, suburban world into a brooding, bleak setting for the increasingly amoral characters. The woods and landscape are constantly tinged grey, and Rachel’s blackouts blend seamlessly with the progression of the film. Undoubtedly, the film is stylistically flawless. However, after watching it you can’t help but feel let down. Due to the huge success of the novel the release of the film was much-hyped; but it is a limp attempt at a thriller that quickly puddles into melodrama that would have been better placed on television rather than as a big screen release. Its use of cheap twists feels superfluous, and the shifting perspectives via the changing narrator only serves as a distraction from the complete absence of characterisation. The two other main female characters; Anna, the mistress, and Megan, the wife-are supposedly offered a platform via their individual screen time, each one gifted with a self-indulgent voice over, and lingering, gratuitous shots of their bodies that feel exploitative rather than darkly voyeuristic. Despite this, they remain as little more than perfectly groomed shells; Megan’s character is by far the worst for this. Despite actress Hayley Bennett’s best efforts, a weak script and bizarre storyline prevent her developing further. This is a fatal flaw in the film, as it means that it is extremely difficult to connect with the characters, or understand their actions in any way. The character of Tom, who is in fact truly one-dimensional, still feels more real than the cardboard cut-outs of female characters that Taylor fails time and time again.
Only Blunt manages to claw her way in to the heart and mind of the viewer. On screen she is a luminous, repellent presence, artfully steering the character away from a boozy caricature into a splintered, deeply human figure that audiences sympathise with and relate too. Megan and Anna were done a disservice by the script-and to a certain extent so was Rachel-but Blunt’s performance is so moving it is difficult not to become embroiled with her character’s battle for survival, sobriety, and the truth.
The Girl on the Train may not be as arresting, or as clever, as the marketing campaign made it out to be, but it is still an intriguing and well-made film. If you watch it for no other reason, watch it purely for Emily Blunt’s performance.