Directed by Tate Taylor
Written by Erin Cressida Wilson
Starring Emily Blunt, Haley Bennett, Rebecca Ferguson, Justin Theroux, Luke Evans, Edgar Ramirez, Laura Prepon, and Allison Janney with Lisa Kudrow
Runtime: 112 minutes
There seems to be a trend in modern thrillers that filmmakers want to keep their films as confusing and unfocused as possible so that when the big reveal comes, everything makes sense. Sometimes, this confusion is handled well and the audience is placed into the world of the protagonist, trying to make sense of everything just as they are. Other times, the confusion and disorder is maddening and only serves to make the audience restless and longing for the end, if indeed they last that long. The Girl on the Train, adapted from the bestselling novel by Paula Hawkins (which I have not read) is in the latter category.
The story follows Rachael (Emily Blunt), a clinically depressed, alcoholic, divorcee who rides the train from a New York suburb to the city every day and along the route, she passes where she lived with her husband Tom (Justin Theroux). A few doors down, she sees a young couple that in her mind represents true love. She’s built a world for them in her imagination and becomes obsessed with them. She loses her mind when she sees the girl with another man and her imaginary world crumbles into what her real life had become.
Then the story shifts narrators to Megan (Haley Bennett, most recently seen in The Magnificent Seven), the woman Rachael sees from the train. She’s a young woman who has a tendency to be sexually promiscuous. She’s unhappy being tied to one place and even tries to seduce her therapist, Dr. Kamal Abdic (Edgar Ramirez, from Joy and Hands of Stone). She’s also the nanny to Tom and Anna (Rebecca Ferguson)’s baby just down the street.
Which leads to the third narrator: Anna. She’s a stay at home mom who volunteers and was Tom’s mistress when he was married to Rachael. She’s terrified of Rachael because of her drinking and because once, Rachael wandered into their home and picked up their baby, looking like she was going to abscond with it (she just wanted to hold it and was extremely drunk and not making good decisions, as is her state for most of the picture).
The shifting narrators makes things murkily clear. We get to see each woman’s lives as they see them, not just from a central protagonist. It also makes for jarring tonal shifts as we go from one person to the next. To add to the confusion, screenwriter Erin Cressida Wilson works in time shifts as well, going six months back to a week ago to today to two months ago and so on, leading up to the conclusion. It’s a common device in novels, not so much in movies because in movies we don’t process the change as quickly and the shifts in tone and knowing things that the characters don’t know yet makes watching the events unfold confusing. Very few films have tackled time jumps (that are not flashbacks) and unless it’s Quinten Tarantino or Christopher Nolan directing, even fewer have done them well. Typically, if the device of a shifting narrator (also tricky and seldom used) is employed, time jumps are not because both are tough to get right. With both used here, it makes the first two-thirds of the film an absolute mess. The characters barely get out of the molds they start in and we’re left essentially watching a depressed alcoholic woman look crazy, another woman who does not fit into the box she’s been place into try to stay there and fail and still another (Anna) whom we never really get to know at all outside the fact she was a mistress and now a mother. The side characters, Allison Janney’s Detective Riley and Laura Prepon’s Cathy (best-ish friend to Rachael) are just there as filler, never really doing much of anything productive. This all leads to a surprisingly riveting third act in which everything is made (too) clear and we begin to see the fog lifted.
Helming this near trainwreck is Tate Taylor, best known for directing the mediocre-at-best The Help. In his attempt to frame things to increase tension, he fumbles and just makes it mildly interesting (sometimes). His laden approach to the bulk of the film tests the patience of the audience and despite having narration direct from the character’s heads, we never quite get to know them. His quick-cutting to action in an attempt to misdirect the audience is only made frustrating when what we may be learning is dropped for another stale conversation or Blunt slowly (very slowly. This movie feels like it’s over two hours and it’s actually just under) losing her grip on her sanity. He picks up the pace in the last act, but even then it’s the story and acting that raises the level of the film, not Taylor’s direction. He never lets anything in subtly, everything is smashed over your head and even that is inelegant. He works hard throughout the film to ensure that even though it looks like he’s asking you to try to work out the mystery presented, he spoon feeds you everything and the audience doesn’t really need to do any heavy lifting. There are makers throughout that lead you to believe that everything will be explained, so there’s no use expending brainpower to try and unravel it all.
To that end, the last act (which I will not spoil) is very well done, if really very obvious. The twist will likely not be seen coming, but even if it is, the resolution won’t be. It’s a hard slog to get there, but the ending is at least partly rewarding because it affirms your suspicions from the rest of the film and it is this last act that helps redeem this messy, slipshod production, even if only slightly.
The Girl on the Train was one of the most anticipated films of the year thanks to the praise of the novel. The movie unfortunately does not warrant such anticipation. Even when it’s getting something right, it still fumbles. It’s boring and confusing and even though that last act is good, it doesn’t make up for the rest of the film (and may in fact not be all that good, just better than the movie to that point). In trying to be edgy and unconventional in its narrative approach, it shoots itself in the foot and should have been sent home, but instead decides to keep fighting, slowly making its way to an end and releasing us from what, in better hands, could have been an immensely entertaining thriller.