Sunday, October 16, 2016
The Girl on the Train
The Girl on the Train would seem to to have all the surface qualities we want in an adaptation of a bestselling thriller. Tate Taylor's new film (adapted by Erin Cressida Wilson from the novel by Paula Hawkins) contains sex, violence, reversals, a self-consciously elaborate structure, and an idea or two about relationships. Why then does The Girl on the Train feel so thin? The answer I think is that Taylor made his film to be the cinematic equivalent of book-club fodder, a vehicle for the raising - but not the exploring - of issues that allows audiences to congratulate themselves on keeping up with "important" pop culture. The Girl on the Train does work as a superficial entertainment, but just barely.
The filmmakers of The Girl on the Train owe an enormous debt to Emily Blunt, who plays the title role with a much-needed sense of abandon. Blunt is Rachel, an unemployed and alcoholic divorcee who spends her days riding the Metro North rail line past the house she once shared with ex-husband Tom (Justin Theroux). Tom has married and had a child with Anna (Rebecca Ferguson), the woman with whom he cheated on Rachel, and the couple employ their neighbor Megan (Haley Bennett) as a nanny. Rachel watches Megan and her husband Scott (Luke Evans) from the train too; she doesn't know the couple but idealizes them as a symbol of the happy life she no longer has. Why did Rachel and Tom get divorced? Rachel believes its because of her inability to get pregnant and subsequent turn to drink, but the bulk of the film is structured as Rachel's return to clarity. Rachel sees Megan kissing another man (Edgar Ramirez) from the train. Megan disappears soon after, and Rachel attempts to solve the mystery while figuring her own life out along the way.
All of this plot is the foundation upon which Emily Blunt performs remarkable notes of anger, sadness, and grief. I don't think I've ever seen someone play drunk on screen quite like Blunt is here; she slows Rachel's internal rhythms down as the alcohol takes over. Blunt is almost matched by Haley Bennett, who was a loyal frontier wife in The Magnificent Seven but here suggests a self-absorption born out of deep sadness. (The shot of Megan being ignored after an exercise class tells you all you need to know about her life.) At one point during a love scene Bennet appears to look directly into the camera. It's an odd choice but an appropriate one, since Megan believes she only exists if other people see her.
The mystery of what happened to Megan clicks along to a bloody conclusion, but the procedural elements of the story (which involve a welcome Allison Janney as a detective) obscure why it resonates in our present moment. Two female characters - Megan and Rebecca Ferguson's Anna - who look alike by design each want opposite lives; Anna is looking for tranquility with Tom while Megan wants to be free from her jerk of a husband. Yet each character is thwarted by an implacable male rage. Sound familiar? The film doesn't do much with this tension; we get several flashbacks to explain Megan's story and her ambivalence about motherhood, but the big reveal feels more like an excuse to give Bennett a nude scene. It's never clear how Megan wound up with Scott, and I felt sorry for the actor Luke Evans - his character is both thoroughly unpleasant and stuck outside the main action.
Tate Taylor made his name as director with The Help, another adaptation. That film did all but speak its subtext out loud; here Taylor skips along on the surface of the plot and lets his actors save the day. The Girl on the Train is passable - especially, I'll bet, if one hasn't read the novel - but it travels through its tunnels just a little too quickly.