Posters on buses, billboards and papers ponder “What did she see?”. The more pertinent question for much of The Girl on the Train is what its deeply troubled and potentially dangerous protagonist did or did not do. Given the unparallelled success of Paula Hawkins’ bestseller the stakes were high for US director Tate Taylor in bringing this psychological thriller to the cinema. Performances are strong, the director once again showing his affinity for directing strong female characters after The Help, but the results are mixed.
Viewers will be split by those who have and have not read the source novel, adapted here by screenwriter Erin Cressida Wilson. Falling into the latter camp, this reviewer purposefully entered the world of The Girl on the Train with no prior knowledge of plot and shall proffer no spoilers but simply put this chiller is a claustrophobic tale of paranoia, prejudice, possession and perspective which fights for lucidity inside a compromised mind. Rachel (Emily Blunt) takes the same train to work each day and spies on an impossibly attractive young couple (Haley Bennett and Luke Evans) who live two doors down from her old house.
She wants to be like this visionary female figure, whom we learn is Megan, to reclaim what she has lost. Whatever has been taken from Rachel forces her to drink to excess and Blunt’s debilitating portrayal of a woman blighted by destructive, compulsive behaviour once again demonstrates what a very fine actress she is. Bennett, likewise, is excellent as a tortured, scarred soul. Rachel’s ex-husband, Tom (Justin Theroux), new wife, Anna (Rebecca Ferguson) and child occupy their former residence and this is one vital cog in the uncontrolled spiral of Rachel’s obsession. Taylor weaves an interconnected web of lies, deceit and betrayal with a rambling, episodic structure where pregnancy and differing stages of motherhood are its linchpin.
After introducing the female characters by name, we jump around in time, with a fateful night the epicentre; one woman disappears and the crux of the film lies in discovering the guilty party. The slow reveal of information from differing points of view patiently unveils the truth. Comparisons to Gone Girl were rife at the time of the book’s publication and in choosing to uproot the original story of London Euston commuters to the surrounds of the Big Apple may ruffle some feathers but in allowing Blunt to maintain an English accent, flecked with a suggestion of north-American twang from time spent as an expat, Taylor further increases her sense of acute otherness in relation to those around her.
Empathy with Rachel is consistent but sympathy rocks back and forth as her credibility is questioned from all quarters. Is she simply the girl who cries wolf or is she telling the truth? Can an alcoholic’s testimony be trusted? In most tales an X traditionally marks the spot where treasure is to be found but there is no such clarity or guidance here. Never sure if what we are witnessing is real or imagined, the map of Rachel’s drink-addled mind throws up uncertainties and delusions. The assignation of guilt and suppression of a character in dire need of help are further galling elements; victimhood, vengeance and vindication are further themes thrown into the mix in a film that raises a number of worthy issues. Chuntering along icy tracks, The Girl on the Train engages more than it rivets and brings goosebumps to skin more than chilling to the bone.
Matthew Anderson | @behind_theseens