A film review by Craig J. Koban October 15, 2016


2016, R, 112 mins.


Emily Blunt as Rachel Watson  /  Haley Bennett as Megan Hipwell  /  Rebecca Ferguson as Anna Watson  /  Justin Theroux as Tom Watson  /  Luke Evans as Scott Hipwell  /  Edgar Ramírez as Dr. Kamal Abdic  /  Laura Prepon as Cathy  /  Allison Janey as Detective Riley  /  Lisa Kudrow as Monica

Directed by Tate Taylor  /  Written by Erin Cressida Wilson, based on the novel by Paula Hawkins

The new murder mystery/psychological thriller THE GIRL ON THE TRAIN - based on the best selling novel of the same name by Paula Hawkins - has been positioned and advertised as this year's GONE GIRL.  Both films share similar storylines about women that go missing, both are based on celebrated literary works, both have unreliable narrators, both deal with the seedier underbelly of suburbia, and both have been released in October of their respective years.  

That's really where the superficial similarities end, because David Fincher's 2014 effort was an upper echelon work not only for the acclaimed filmmaker, but for the genre as a whole.  THE GIRL ON THE TRAIN, by direct comparison, never once achieves the same level of macabre hypnotic allure as GONE GIRL, nor is it really an effectively orchestrated whodunit.  It has the slick and polished veneer of a grade A thriller, but deep down it's fairly shallow B-grade exploitation material that's trying to pass itself off as something shockingly novel. 

That's really altogether too bad, seeing as THE GIRL ON THE TRAIN starts off with modest intrigue, has a clever premise, and contains a bravura lead performance by Emily Blunt - who demonstrates time and time again that she's an actress unafraid of any genre  - that should have helped the film achieve a level of tantalizing curiosity throughout.  Unfortunately, THE GIRL ON THE TRAIN unravels fairly quickly and implodes within itself largely because of its scripting choices, extremely awkward and distracting narrative structure, and a central murder mystery that's not altogether mysterious or thrilling.  The film adheres highly to the Law of Conservation of Characters, a movie troupe that explains that any character in the film that's not given much weight or anything consequential to do will unavoidably figure into the plot rather heavily later on.  In short, anyone with a reasonable head on their shoulders - and that takes into account the aforementioned law - will be able to deduce the whodunit culprit relatively easily...and no murder mystery film should allow for that to happen. 



Blunt plays Rachel, a sad sack of a human being if there ever was one and the film's rather unreliable narrator, that spends a majority of her unemployed and frequently inebriated days riding a commuter train back and forth into New York City.  When she's not guzzling on mini smuggled in vodka bottles she obsessively observes everything that the train passes by.  One particular house catches her attention, mostly because it contains a version of her perceived ideal marriage.  Living in the home is Megan (Haley Bennett, looking alarmingly like Jennifer Lawrence) and her husband Scott (Luke Evans).  Everyday that Rachel travels by their house (the train also conveniently seems to stop long enough for her to focus her gaze on them more intensely) she observes them as a relatively happy married couple very much in love.  Then one day Rachel sees Megan passionately kissing another man...and this sets her off, seeing as she's a recent divorcee with abandonment issues. 

The film then rickshaws back and forth multiple times between the past and present, mostly to embellish both Rachel's past married life and the back story of Megan herself.  We discover that Rachel was married to Tom (Justin Theroux), who now lives with his new wife Anna (Rebecca Ferguson) and their baby (Rachel's toxic alcoholism was the main culprit in their split).  We also learn in multiple flashbacks within flashbacks that Megan was kissing her psychologist (Edgar Ramirez), whom she was seeking out to help her through a strained marriage to Scott, a man that we learn is a bit of a domineering control freak.  Complicating the plot is the fact that Megan works as Tom and Anna's nanny, a job she's doesn't have much enthusiasm for.  Back in the present, Rachel is enraged with Megan's infidelity and tries to confront her, but she's so horrendously drunk and blackouts, remembering nothing of the potential altercation.   

Then Megan goes missing and her dead body turns up... 

The finest accolade I will bestow upon the rather problematic THE GIRL ON THE TRAIN is how strongly Emily Blunt carries it.  There have been many performers that have played chronic alcoholics in past films, but Blunt here manages to find a brutal and unflinching honesty in her portrayal of her chemically addicted and deeply tormented soul.  Very little effort is made to sugarcoat Rachel as a character: she's diseased, paranoid, causes harm to others and herself, and isn't altogether very likeable.  The temptation here would have been to make Rachel woefully sympathetic, but Blunt has none of that.  She really creates a woman that crosses back and forth between being a wounded victim and a deeply manipulative and mentally unstable being that's unhealthily scheming at every turn.  Blunt is a very beautiful and glamorous woman, but the way she checks her movie star vanity at the door with her tour de force work here allows for THE GIRL ON THE TRAIN to achieve some level of gloomy human truth that it otherwise wouldn't attain without her. 

Less of a presence, but nevertheless impactful is Allison Janey in a small, but crucial role as a police detective that has deeply rooted suspicions that Rachel is the main culprit behind Megan's death.  Janey has this no-nonsense frankness in the role that serves it impeccably well; she always feels authentically rendered.  Less impressive, though, is the supporting cast around them.  Edgar Ramirez is such an emotional blank slate here as Megan's seedy psychologist that his dicey character barely makes a lasting impression.  Luke Evans has a commanding screen presence, to be sure, but he seems ill at ease with conveying Scott's whirlwind of conflicting emotions.  Justin Theroux has a tricky role here, but it's largely underwritten, as is Ferguson's part as his fragile wife.  One big issue with THE GIRL ON THE TRAIN is that, for the most part, most of the characters here rarely feel like flesh and blood human beings.  They're stereotyped caricatures that serve the convenient purposes of the plot.  The men are mostly all uncaring and amoral a-holes, whereas the woman are aggressively needy and reliant on these same men to help define who they are.  It's rare for a film to have questionable and oversimplified portrayals of both sexes, and that kind of turned me off. 

The narrative structure of THE GIRL ON THE TRAIN is a semi-jumbled mess.  Non-linear films can be excited and enthralling to watch, but the haphazard construction here lacks fluidity, not to mention that, more often than not, it has the negative side effect of slowing the proceedings down to a snail's pace.  At first, I enjoyed the strange set up of THE GIRL ON THE TRAIN, which reminded me a lot of REAR WINDOW, especially seeing as both films have characters that let their voyeuristic fascination with others that they fanatically observe slowly get the better of them.  Alas, THE GIRL ON THE TRAIN lacks sustained tension, not to mention that as it careens towards a would-be shocking climax and plot twist you're kind of left shrugging it all off.  The film commences as a fairly obligatory and traditional thriller, with the crazy culprit revealing himself in a moment that's not nearly as scandalous as this film believes it is.  That, and the film lacks the haunting ambiguity of GONE GIRL, instead favoring a relatively neat and tidy denouement.   

THE GIRL ON THE TRAIN is awfully good looking.  Director Tate Taylor (THE HELP) makes a cosmetically appealing film that contains limitlessly attractive actors.  Yet, there's little substance lurking underneath this film's consummate sheen and THE GIRL ON THE TRAIN is ultimately cheaply rendered and lurid trash that's desperately trying to be an artsy and intriguing psychological expose of depression, addiction, domestic abuse, and loss.  With Blunt's Oscar caliber work, the film's at least compellingly watchable.  Without her, though, and THE GIRL ON THE TRAIN is mostly disposable and forgettable.   

GONE GIRL it most certainly ain't.

 this film.


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