The Anticipated: The Girl on the Train

In All, Movies by David

So after a bit of a break, The Anticipated returns. The movie season is finally beginning to transition toward prestige films, but there are still some more pop films to hold us over during the switch. One of those is this edition’s selection, The Girl on the Train. This film looked to take advantage of the success of Gone Girl as a female-centric pop lit thriller that achieved critically and financially, and has the star power and popular director in Tate Taylor to do so. Did this prove to be a potent combination? Let’s dig in and find out.

Serious Spoilers Ahead: Don’t read this if you plan to see the movie or read the book.

The Girl on the Train (October 7th 2016)

How was it? 

Hmm, this is a toughie. This is a rather engaging and tense film, but it isn’t necessarily a good film. While watching the movie a lot of what happens really clicks, and the film does its best tell a compelling story. Then the film ends and everything starts to fall apart. Much of the film uses unreliable narrators to help build suspense about what is really going on, and while it works, it all feels like a sleight of hand trick obscuring that there is nothing to this film beyond the initial mystery. This isn’t the only film to have that problem, and it’s not always a fatal flaw, either. The first Avengers film is a hell of a lot of fun and entertaining with some really good stuff in it, but it is also completely hollow, as its script is lacking and too much of the film consists of fights between nameless antagonists and the Avengers. The Departed is a really tense and effective film, but it is a one-trick pony and the movie begins to fall apart under increased scrutiny. Now, initial viewing experiences still matter, which is why I still say both The Avengers and The Departed are good movies, but this sort of thing does hamper the ceiling of a film. So The Girl on the Train does get credit for being a highly engaging film from start to finish (standard modern film pacing issues aside, because at this point I just accept that no one really knows how to pace movies anymore). Still, you wish there was ultimately more to the movie, and this is where the comparisons to Gone Girl really harm Girl on the Train. Gone Girl was also a thriller with a pretty shocking twist, but unlike The Girl on the Train, which only confirms its twist in the last thirty or so minutes of the movie, Gone Girl revealed its twist halfway through the film, and used that reveal to tell a new story. This is one of the reasons that Gone Girl holds up to scrutiny much better, because it doesn’t really on its mystery to make the movie work, but instead uses the mystery to create a layered story with multiple layered characters.

What's that you think you see another three dimensional character in this film? No... okay false alarm I guess.

What’s that, you think you see another three dimensional character in this film? No… okay, false alarm I guess.

Conversely, The Girl on the Train has loads of character issues. Emily Blunt’s Rachel is the lone exception, as Blunt gives an amazing performance as a woman whose grief lead her down a self-destructive path. Blunt nails the flawed character she is supposed to play and presents a person who is both highly sympathetic and highly infuriating. Her character evokes a visceral response, as seeing her struggle at times is almost painful to watch. Even her character suffers, though, from how the twist is presented. When you fully discover how abusive and terrible her ex-husband Tom (Justin Theroux) was to her, there is no real time to process what is happening before the film ends. Blunt went from a flawed character who seemed to be the author of her own self-destruction to a victim that had been gaslit into a drunken spiral. The film really needed time to process what exactly that meant. There could have been a real nuanced portrayal of a woman who had been set on the wrong path but nonetheless chose to keep barreling down it. This character could have had agency and owned her own foibles. Instead, Rachel was a victim who had been convinced by her husband that she was the cause of all her problems, including the end of her marriage. Now, don’t get me wrong. This reveal allows Theroux to basically go full swirly-mustached villain and makes the finally fatal confrontation between them feel quite satisfying (especially considering how graphic his death becomes when Anna literally twists the knife corkscrew). But Theroux never gets enough time to embrace his villainous side (or really play up any ambiguity before that, because he shifts from saint to monster pretty quickly), and Blunt never gets time for proper self-reflection. One can only wonder how much more fun this film might have been if Rachel had realized all of this earlier on, with the rest of the film as a cat and mouse game with Tom as she tried to prove how awful he was to everyone else. Instead, everything is far too rushed, leaving too little time for character moments. Theroux does deserve credit, though, for one particular scene in which Tom expresses to Anna that there is no way that Rachel killed Megan. Clearly Tom knows this to be true, because he killed Megan, but Theroux imbues this line with a bit of sympathy, as if even he feels bad for all that has happened to Rachel because of him, and putting this murder on her (no matter how easy it might be) is just one step too far. This kind of scene makes it especially sad that he doesn’t get more to do in this movie before his full heel turn.

If only you were used better.

If only you were used better.

Meanwhile, the rest of the characters just never quite work. Haley Bennett’s Megan has her moments, and her backstory mostly works, but the film gets too cute in shrouding her story with mystery, and because of that she never feels like more than a plot device. Rebecca Ferguson is mostly wasted in her portrayal as Anna, as she is mainly stuck in the periphery for far too long. Anna is the character that feels like she has the most wasted potential. If done properly she could have been used well to create doubts in the audience about Rachel, and really be the second lead of this movie, but instead she is just an obstacle that never particularly works. She has loads of reasons to be wary of Rachel, especially because Tom has basically tricked her so thoroughly about him being a good guy. It just never seems particularly believable that Rachel was the one who killed Megan, and part of that is that Anna’s POV is simply not strong enough to give us reasons to not trust Rachel. The film is never willing to commit to the three narrator structure that it started off with. After the beginning, it mainly becomes Rachel’s story, with some brief time with Megan and even briefer times with Anna. For a movie that is supposed to be about three women that become linked by a horrific event, the story doesn’t do a great job of connecting them well.

Then there are the side characters, who also feel wasted. Luke Evans as Megan’s husband Scott never quite works, because it is hard to get a real feel for him. He mainly exists as a red herring that makes Rachel make more bad decisions. Edgar Ramirez’s Dr. Kamal Abdic works a little better, especially once he begins interacting with Rachel after only interacting with Megan in mostly flashbacks. Still, while I appreciate that the film didn’t have him have sex with his patient, as Rachel and the audience are first led to believe (though I can’t say he does a very good job at establishing personal boundaries), he also ends up as nothing more than a red herring. Even though he associates with Rachel and somewhat helps her in realizing how she had been lied to by Tom about what happened during her blackouts, Abdic isn’t helpful enough to really justify why he is in this movie. Then there is the biggest wasted opportunity of this movie, Allison Janney’s Detective Riley. In Gone Girl two of the best characters were Tyler Perry’s Tanner Bolt and Kim Dickens’ Detective Rhonda Boney. Both of these characters worked as outside observers who often acted as audience surrogates reacting to all the crazy things happening in the movie. Perry’s Bolt spends much of that movie with a look of amusement as he shakes his head at these crazy white people, while Dickens’ Det. Boney spends the movie refusing to take things at face value, an attitude that helps her slowly discover what is actually going on. Detective Riley feels like an amalgam of those two characters. For much of the film, she seems to have a sense that there is more going on here than what the surface is showing, while also being quite amused at the crazy antics of these young attractive suburban housewives. But none of this ever quite works, because she is always forced to react to what is happening, and never treated like the main focus of the story. This makes her feel like the epitome of the problem of most of the characters in this movie–they mostly feel wasted and misused. This is why it is hard to judge this movie, because while it has a slick outer layer there is no foundation on which it was built, which leaves the film flimsy and easy to poke holes into.

Isn’t this based on…?

This tagline doesn't really fit unless the book is drastically different from the movie.

This tagline doesn’t really fit unless the book is drastically different from the movie.

The highly successful book by Paula Hawkins that came out in 2015. I had hoped to read it before seeing the film, but it just never quite worked out.

Did it warrant its selection in The Anticipated?

No, but at the same time that isn’t because this film was a failure. The film was modestly budgeted at $45 million, and even accounting for marketing has already made that back. Worldwide it has a good chance be a solid financial hit. It won’t do as well as Gone Girl did, but it will still prove to be a success. And even the critical reviews have been mixed at best, it is an engaging movie. And The Girl on the Train is the latest example of a female-led movie written by women (both the original book and the screenplay) that actually portrays its female characters as flawed and realistic. If The Girl on the Train contributes to the overall push for Hollywood to make more of this type of movie, it will be a success.

The biggest problem for this film, though, is that the Gone Girl comparison set it up for failure. The film spends too much time feeling like it is trying to get out of Gone Girl‘s shadow, and that proves really distracting. Of course, the Gone Girl comparisons are what helped drive original interests up in the book and the movie, but that ultimately proved to be a double-edged sword. Emily Blunt is great in this film, but her performance doesn’t compare to Rosamund Pike’s, nor does Theroux’ properly compare to Ben Affleck’s. Even the direction suffers in comparison, because while Tate Taylor is a solid director who did a good job in a film like The Help (which was way better than it ever should have been), Taylor is no David Fincher. Fincher added his stylistic stamp to Gone Girl which helped take it to the next level, while Taylor was simply not able to do the same with The Girl on the Train. All of these Gone Girl comparisons simply set this movie up for failure, and it is rather remarkable that it is holding up as well as it is under the immense pressure placed upon it.

Oh what a thrilling cat and mouse game you two could have played.

Oh, what a thrilling cat and mouse game you two could have played.

Would I recommend it to others?

Hmm, not in theatres. There is a lot to see right now in theatres, and this film doesn’t feel like it needs to be at the top of the list. It is worth seeing, but it would be much better to simply wait for the film to come out on VOD or Blu-ray and watch it at home.

How would I rate it?

What to do, what to do? This film was another miss for the list, really, but at the same time it proved to be one of the most thought provoking films to analyze in quite a while, which has to count for something. On the handy Anticipation Meter it receives 7 corkscrews out of 10. This film is not as good as I would have liked it to be, but it was still fascinating to watch, and is proving to be a financial success that should help more films like this get made.

For an actual rating: The surface of this film is really good. The action is tense, and the pressure of the film builds quite well. Emily Blunt is amazing, and the film really knows how to keep you glued to the action on screen, but the film still rings hollow and relies on its gimmick far too much. There are a lot of holes in the film, and once you notice one it is hard not to notice the rest, kind of like trying to plug up a hole in the dam. Still, being compelling counts for something, so this film receives 2.5 stars out of 4. Overall, this is a solid film that is nonetheless a mixed bag. The characters feel mostly like wasted potential, and the movie never quite escaped Gone Girl‘s shadow. Still for a single viewing mystery thriller you could do a lot worse, and this film knows how to evoke an emotional response from you.

That’s it for this edition of The Anticipated. It is hard to say which film will be next, but just keep checking in to see. Until then, just remember that just because you can disguise gin or vodka as water doesn’t mean you necessarily should. Also, maybe don’t sit on the same seat every day you ride a train.

-David Robertson