Ever since The Girl On the Train was released last year, it was hailed as “the next Gone Girl.” Such a comparison was probably a little unfair, despite both novels’ reliance on the untrustworthy narrator device, the switching between POV’s throughout the story and the fact they were shocking thrillers.
And so when it was announced that the film adaption of The Girl On the Train would be announced in October, just days shy of Gone Girl’s (the film) two year anniversary, the comparisons grew. Many wondered if Emily Blunt, starring as the main character Rachel, would secure the first Oscar nomination that has (unfairly) eluded her throughout her career like Rosamund Pike did for Gone Girl. The film would no doubt be a smashing success (it’s already being projected to be the #1 film this weekend with close to $30 million. Not Gone Girl level numbers, but pretty respectable nonetheless). It just needed to be good enough for Oscar consideration, right?
Unfortunately, critics have not been kind to The Girl On the Train. Metacritic has it at a middling 48, with many mentioning or flat out comparing it to Gone Girl.
And while the film does have its issues, one of them shouldn’t be that it’s not the next Gone Girl.
The story’s protagonist, Rachel (Blunt) is a depressed alcoholic who spends most of the story inebriated. She’s still reeling from her divorce from Tom (Justin Theroux), him starting a family with Anna (Rebecca Ferguson) and losing her job because of her drinking. In an effort to fool her understanding roommate Kathy (Laura Prepon), she continued to ride the train into the city every day. On the way there, she sees her old house and their mysterious neighbor Megan (Haley Bennett) who she begins to fixate on. Megan becomes a symbol for what Rachel lost: she has a (seemingly) loving and passionate marriage.
This all changes when Rachel sees Megan with another man on her balcony. She’s suddenly filled with rage; “How could she betray him?” she wonders. Suddenly, Megan becomes Tom, and Rachel just can’t help herself. After a day of drinking in the city, Rachel exits the train and follows who looks like Megan into a tunnel. The screen cuts to black, and she wakes up covered in blood, with a voicemail from Tom instructing her to leave him alone. A police officer (Allison Janney) comes to the apartment to inform her that Megan has gone missing, and she’s the prime suspect.
What follows is Rachel’s attempts at trying to piece together the events of that night while getting involved with Megan’s husband Scott (Luke Evans). We are also simultaneously treated to Anna’s story which mostly involves being mad at Rachel popping up in the neighborhood, and then flashbacks to Megan’s story; we learn how all three women are intertwined in ways that go beyond Megan’s disappearance.
Where Gone Girl was a dark. long look at longterm relationships, and a satire about the media and their oftentimes devious role in evolving crime stories. The Girl On the Train, if anything, is a long and hard look at the effects of alcoholism and emotional abuse while being a full blooded mystery. Where Nick and Amy started off as sympathetic and likable characters that slowly grew into more realistically rendered, unlikable characters, Rachel isn’t given that same treatment. “I’m not the girl I used to be,” she says at several points throughout the film. She can’t get out of her own way; her addiction has crippled her to the point where even absolute strangers know her as “that drunk woman.” Flashbacks portray her as a bright, happy woman and when juxtaposed with her current reality it’s not always easy to look at. She buys bottles and then pours them into her water bottle to get her through her train ride, to help her fall asleep and to just simply exist.
Blunt plays this beautifully; she doesn’t make Rachel just a “sad alcoholic,” but rather a woman who desperately wants to overcome her circumstances despite constantly being lambasted by those around her. Even Janney’s cop character treats her with immediate disdain; she’s not trustworthy (even if she’s telling the truth) because of her disease. The scene where she confesses to a therapist (Édgar Ramírez) is completely raw, maybe the rawest piece of acting we’ve seen from Blunt during her entire career. And while it’s not always pretty, you can’t look away; she’s completely transfixing and mesmerizing without begging for your empathy.
If only the film around her was as mesmerizing and as strong. The screenplay jumps over some of the crucial elements from the book, such as Rachel’s relationship with her roommate. Kathy pops up once or twice throughout the film, but she’s really nonexistent. In the book, she’s a much more present, and sometimes overbearing presence to a fault. You feel her relationship with Rachel has reached its breaking point, and that Rachel has exhausted goodwill; she makes the consequences of Rachel’s actions feel more real. Similarly, Megan’s story is never given the room it deserves to breathe, nor does she possess the type of mystery that made her story so interesting in the first place, while Anna is almost an afterthought altogether; she’s rendered to an archetype, rather than the complex presence she was in the book.
It might just be because there’s so much in the book that just was impossible to translate to the screen without feeling heavy-handed and jarring. The use of title cards to let us know, “Hey, we’re going back two months in time,” takes the viewer of what was a pretty magnetic experience in the book. Ultimately, we come to resent the stories of Anna and Megan (despite them being vital to the story) because they’re never as interesting or as fully integrated into the film as Rachel’s, nor are they given the opportunity to be as dynamic as Blunt. It’s clearly her film, and everyone else is revolving around her which for a story like this is not what was needed.
Tate Taylor, who directed films like The Help, lacks the kind of skill a thriller like this needed. It almost feels like a late night cable TV movie rather than a film. Whereas David Fincher proved to be the perfect choice for Gone Girl (at the risk of being a hypocrite and for lack of a better example), Taylor feels too disconnected from the story; there’s no excitement or flair in any of the shots. Again, we look to Blunt’s performance to really get us excited about everything that’s going on. There’s also the fact we’ve moved the plot from London to New York for no reason other than because someone said to, which muddles Blunt’s performance (is she sporting an American or British accent? It’s hard to tell).
In the end, the source material’s twist proves effective enough to entertain on its own merits. That being said, The Girl On the Train never really rises above being just an average film. I’m sure it’ll have a long life with television reruns, but nothing here outside of another fantastic Emily Blunt performance screams, “GO AND SEE THIS MOVIE!”