I’m in the minority I think when I say I really enjoy reading up on movies before I see them. I’m not often fussed if the ending is ruined because I get a kick out of seeing how they pull it off. For instance, if I find out in advance that a character is dead the whole time and that the ghosts aren’t actually malevolent, I think, cool, I’m gonna pay real close attention to see if there are any clues – maybe recurring visual motifs. Hey are they using red as a signifier of death?
But when I saw The Girl on the Train, I had accidentally gone in without a clue as to what the film was about – and it was definitely the best (non-)decision I could have made.
The movie follows Rachel Watson, played by Emily Blunt (The Devil Wears Prada, Looper), a depressed alcoholic prone to drunkenly calling her ex-husband Tom (Justin Theoroux, Mulholland Drive, Inland Empire). Every morning she takes the train into Manhattan, riding past her old house where Tom now lives with his new wife and baby (Rebecca Ferguson, Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation). The train also passes the home of neighbouring couple Megan and Scott Hipwell (Luke Evans, Dracula Untold, and Hayley Bennett, The Haunting of Molly Hartley). The young lovers appear to have a perfect marriage and Rachel begins to fantasize about them, until Megan goes missing.
The Girl on the Train is a hard movie to talk about without giving anything away. It’s adapted from the best-selling book of the same name by Paula Hawkins that, admittedly, I haven’t read (but it has been reviewed by Narrative Muse’s Maiko Lenting). In this case, knowing nothing about the original novel really paid off. Maybe if you’ve managed to remain a Girl on the Train virgin, then leave it at that before you see the film.
The film relocates the story from London to New York but leaves Blunt with her native accent. Coincidentally, as the Universe aligns itself, I’ve recently watched a bunch of Emily Blunt movies and I’m definitely a big fan – Sicario, Looper, The Edge of Tomorrow and right before seeing The Girl on the Train, I had serendipitously won a copy of The Huntsman: Winters War.
If you’ve seen Blunt in any of those films, you might be surprised to see that this role pretty much deconstructs all of the agency those characters fought for. The film is even shot in a way that maximises Rachel’s inconsistent lucidity. A lot of close-ups and long-lens shots create an uncomfortable but tangible sense of claustrophobia. Rachel’s drinking, erratic behaviour and unreliability as the defining perspective of the film is magnified as Megan’s disappearance becomes more sinister. And the result is a long, well-paced, legitimate tension that came close to giving me a heart attack.
I can’t speak to how this plays out in the book, but it takes a lot of chutzpah to toe the unlikeable line with an alcoholic, broken main character. Honestly I found her uncomfortable to watch because Rachel’s depression is hard to witness.
Feeling the orchestrated anxiety-driven frustration at Rachel’s terrible decisions, I caught myself wondering if I’d be less frustrated if her character was a man and if in another cinematic landscape, her flaws wouldn’t somehow be admirable. When I conjured the disreputable acts of a slew of male anti-heroes from other movies, I realised that Blunt’s performance was more nuanced in its craftsmanship than I had initially given it credit for. She embodies Rachel superbly, flaws and all.
I should also mention that Hayley Bennett and Rebecca Ferguson are fantastic in this movie. In a surprising genre twist, the film is mostly carried by the three leading female characters. Bennett is superb. Despite being initially confused by her doppelganger-like appearance and performance to Jennifer Lawrence, she carried her role of the bold, layered Megan with ease. And Ferguson delivered an unfolding depth to her character.
Now I’ve already heard a lot of people compare The Girl on the Train to Gone Girl, but I think the similarity is mostly superficial; Gone Girl had a very different execution. There was a sterility in the way Gone Girl dealt with the characters, making them distant and alien – The Girl on the Train is the opposite, you are so closely tuned into each of the women’s perspectives and causes for their strange behaviour. It’s easy to believe that you may act in the same way if you were in their position.
The Girl on the Train delivers tension in spades. And while it conjures a 1944 Ingrid Berman film that I should revisit, I’m probably just going to get into bed with The Huntsman: Winter’s War until my heart stops pounding in my ears.