The Girl on the Train was a “maybe I’ll see it in the cinema” for me. The previews were decent enough, but never really set me alight. I didn’t read the book, and while I like Emily Blunt (Edge of Tomorrow), she too has never really made me sit up and notice. There was that plus the feeling that the vibe just seemed to skew a little too closely to Gone Girl for comfort. Being a David Fincher fan, and feeling Gone Girl was a solid evolution in Fincher’s career, going to see a rip off, in the end, put paid to whether or not I went to see it in the cinema.
It’s a shame too, because having now seen it, I can say my preconceptions were mostly wrong about the movie. It’s a pretty solid thriller, with a fine central performance by Emily Blunt, and some nice character details. In the movie, Blunt plays Rachel, an alcoholic leading a morose life full of regret and avoidance. She rides the train to Manhattan every day and it passes her old house, now occupied by her ex husband Tom (Justin Theroux) and his new wife Anna (Rebecca Ferguson), and the home of former neighbours Scott (Luke Evans) and Megan (Haley Bennett). When Megan goes missing, Rachel recalls seeing her with another man shortly before. Initially a suspect in Megan’s disappearance, Rachel attempts to help solve the mystery, and in doing so, uncovers some truths about herself in the process.
Going back to my original thought that The Girl on the Train felt too similar to Gone Girl, I’m still left with the notion that this is a movie that could easily have been Fincher’s follow up movie to Gone Girl. It does hit many of the same notes, unavoidable seeing as it’s about death and deception in cosy middle-upper American suburbia. Not that this is unique – movies like Ordinary People and American Beauty have also mined the same ground successfully. American family dramas seem to fit most comfortably in this niche. Rarely do you see the trials and tribulations of the rich, and movies about poorer people are mostly about their struggles to remain intact while violence surrounds them. In these upper-middle class murder/mysteries everyone lives in big homes with big yards. The husbands are well groomed professionals, the wives all fit and beautiful, but all live with the tortured psyches of the modern age: everything might look great, but they’re all trapped in a personal purgatory of blandness, where life can only be made palatable by cheating, lying, fighting, and living in make-believe worlds built on avoiding what the real issues facing them are. The Girl on the Train is no different, in fact it exemplifies the tropes of this sub genre.
But it excels in certain places, I feel. Emily Blunt’s career performance here is fantastic, and while it isn’t as hardcore a portrayal of an alcoholic could have been, that isn’t what the movie is about. Nevertheless, it’s a terrific turn for an actress who has been mostly just okay – I always feel that actors need just one particular performance to define whatever talent they may have – Tom Cruise in Magnolia, Nicolas Cage in Leaving Las Vegas to name but two – roles which allow the soul of the character to be laid bare. Rachel is broken by her addiction – she’s still upper-middle class, so there’s a level of truth here left unexplored, but she’s broken nevertheless. I always felt that without her involvement in the story she’d be unable to get through the next year without actually hitting rock bottom, so in essence The Girl nn the Train is also a redemption tale, and who doesn’t like those?
The central story is done very well, but it’ll also be predictable for many audience members. Despite some nicely layered character development, especially with Megan, the plot feels a little choppy and overthought, and ends in a way I thought was too formulaic, given the choice of Theroux as lead actor. He’s insufficient for the role, I felt. Luke Evans, who is mostly underused in this movie (see his great performance in the otherwise lifeless High Rise) would have been a FAR better choice to play Tom. The character of Scott is underwritten and although somewhat important in the grand scheme of things, feels superfluous. So too does Allison Janney in her role as the lead detective on the case, only appearing a couple of times throughout the story in scenes that never really seem to add to much.
But a good movie is more than the sum of its many parts, and there’s enough of that other stuff, that connective dark matter that just happens in movies, to elevate The Girl on the Train beyond the familiar tropes and characters of the American Family Drama. I go back to saying that it feels like a Fincher movie, and if director Tate Taylor (The Help) had opted to use a muted, Fincheresque, blue-heavy palette he would have been accused of ripping off Fincher, but may have ended up making a movie that resonated a little heavier in the heart and mind. As it is, the movie is still very good indeed, but I’m left thinking that the entire production benefitted to a great degree by Emily Blunt.