Why The Girl on the Train feels so phenomenally wrong as a film is hard to parse, because it obviously was someone’s idea of a "complicated woman" movie.
Who was that person? Was it some studio head? Or director Tate Taylor, who made the problematic but beloved The Help? Or screenwriter Erin Cressida Wilson, whose very first screenplay — for Secretary — is a fine and subversive bit of adaptation?
Whoever’s to blame, something went pretty wrong here. About the only good call in The Girl on the Train was the casting, which gives us two hours of Emily Blunt shredding her soul, soaking it in vodka, and then setting it on fire. The rest is a mawkish, retrograde misfire that tries hard to recall an earlier era of filmmaking, but misses the point altogether.
Part of the movie’s problem comes from its source material
In a way, the project was doomed from the start. Paula Hawkins’s bestselling novel The Girl on the Train was marketed as a "psychological thriller," but it lazily cheats the psychological part. It’s a first-person novel with three narrators that skips around in time. That kind of novel typically derives its tension from two factors: the ability to let the characters (rather than the author) strategically withhold and reveal information, and the presence of an unreliable narrator — especially when one of those narrators is an alcoholic who routinely blacks out.
In The Girl on the Train movie, that alcoholic is Rachel (Blunt), who was happily married to Tom (Justin Theroux), or so she thought. Then they had trouble conceiving, and Rachel started drinking, and he dumped her for Anna (Rebecca Ferguson). Two years later, stripped of her dignity and her livelihood, Rachel rides the train past the house every day, surreptitiously drinking from her Camelbak bottle and staring longingly at paradise lost.
But she’s shifted some of her fixation onto the house a few doors down, where Megan (Haley Bennett) and her husband Scott (Luke Evans) live an apparently blissful life. Rachel doesn’t know Megan, but she feels like she does from watching her every day — which is why, when she spots Megan apparently cheating on Scott, she loses it and goes on a bender, feeling personally wronged. How could a woman with a perfect life just throw it away when she would die to trade places with her?
When Rachel wakes up the next morning, bloody and having blacked out again, she isn’t sure what happened. Then she discovers that Megan has gone missing. Certain that her discovery of Megan’s paramour from the train window holds the key, Rachel goes to the police. But who would believe a mess like her?
Reading Hawkins’s novel, you can kind of see the narrative twist coming from a mile away (I’m trying not to give it away here), because you realize early on that none of these narrators are going to lie to you. But the novel still hinges on one key bit of information that’s withheld from the audience and the narrators. That absolves them (and, by proxy, us) from any moral or ethical responsibility; by the end, the story becomes less complex, not more.
Which, sure, that’s a thing a book can do. But if you’re going to write a story like that, you need to know that it has two effects. One, it’s annoying to readers, who feel like the author has been withholding from them. And two, it results in too-easy characterization: Here are the victims, and here are the soulless monsters. Victims only do bad things because bad things were done to them. Bad characters are just baddies to the bone.
That everyone in the victim column in The Girl on the Train is a woman is more than a little troubling. And that trouble carries into the film’s adaptation. Not because women aren’t victimized — of course they are. Like all people, women have all kinds of temperaments, histories, and life experiences. But in The Girl on the Train universe, there are only two kinds of women: damaged messes and aloof, uncaring bitches.
That’s frustrating. Portraying complex women on screen doesn’t mean suggesting that below the surface, every woman is either a basket case or a fraud. But if that’s the story The Girl on the Train wants to tell, the question remains: Why does this characterization matter?
The Girl on the Train is aping an older type of movie, but it doesn’t understand its genre
It’s easy to detect shades of Hitchcock in The Girl on the Train’s stark, monochrome advertising and twisty plotting — not to mention the dead girl. (It’s also trying to be Gone Girl, but all it has in common is a word in the title and the blood.) There’s a Rear Window sensibility at play. But it lacks the eerie chilliness, purposeful camerawork, and layered storytelling of movies like Vertigo or The Birds. This movie’s more emotional, more heated. It’s got some Hitchcock DNA, but it’s also trying to be something else.
In adapting the novel to the big screen, the filmmakers clearly had in mind another touchpoint: the highly stylized social melodramas of the 1950s, most famously from filmmakers like Douglas Sirk, who combined high drama and social critique. Film scholar Thomas Schatz characterizes those movies as "popular romances that depicted a virtuous individual (usually a woman) or couple (usually lovers) victimized by repressive and inequitable social circumstances, particularly those involving marriage, occupation, and the nuclear family."
Often, the protagonist of this sort of film is sent through a battery of suffering, only to emerge with some kind of self-respecting authenticity, not to mention the passionate romance and blissful life they always wanted. This is not the chilly cinema of Hitchcock. It pulses with human emotion. "Cinema is blood, is tears, violence, hate, death, and love," Sirk said.
Critics, predictably, hated this at the time: too romantic, too ready to feed into bourgeois norms.
But a few decades after the genre’s popularity peaked, a critical re-evaluation began to take place. Far from being the wish-fulfillment fantasies they appeared to be on the surface, the best mid-century social melodramas (by Sirk and others) actually covertly critiqued the ideology they appeared to support, through a heavy dose of dramatic irony. In other words, be careful what you wish for — you might get it, and then what?
Whether these filmmakers intended for their movies to work as a critique of normcore values probably depended a lot on their individual self-awareness. And whether that was the intent probably doesn’t matter: A critic in the 1970s would view a movie that ends with happiness and a picket fence quite differently than the average 1950s viewer. What viewers take away from a film has a lot to do with what they bring to it.
That The Girl on the Train is partly meant as an homage to the mid-century social melodrama is apparent from its visual clues. While Hawkins’s book is set in the suburbs of London — the titular train shuttles commuters in and out of the big city every day — the film relocates the story to New York, where the action takes place in Ardsley-on-Hudson, about 45 minutes north of Grand Central Station by Metro-North.
(I wasn’t able to do the footwork to confirm, but I’m relatively confident the train does not actually run as closely to these tranquil suburban houses on that line as the movie would have you believe — ah, the power of cinema.)
The tracks have been updated a bit (just a bit) since the 1950s, but riding the commuter trains back and forth from New York City still has a distinctly old-timey feel to it — men in hats and overcoats with newspapers, the wood-paneled bars in Grand Central Station where Rachel swills an old-fashioned martini with two olives. And the upstate "bedroom communities" still resemble, in some ways, what they were several generations ago, with some wealthy families that stick to traditional gender roles, the wife staying at home to take care of the kids.
In the movie, Ardsley-on-Hudson is one of these towns. To heighten the sense of time standing still, the women’s makeup and hairstyles, though contemporary, incorporate the bottle blonde and red lipstick of the 1950s. And the houses and offices in The Girl on the Train seem to be largely furnished with mid-century modern furniture. (Which, conveniently, is back in style, thanks to Mad Men). There’s a shrink, there’s illicit sex, and there’s a lot of blood and tears.
Perhaps most revealing is that we only see women there in or around their houses, unless things are very wrong (Rachel), they’re misbehaving (Megan), or they’re pushing a baby carriage around (Anna). This Ardsley-on-Hudson might as well be set 75 years ago, except with slightly better cars and cell phones.
Those cell phones are important. Hitchcock was interested in the psychological, but mid-century social melodramas also tended to explore cultural anxieties, like changing family norms and the effects of technology on ordinary people’s lives. In The Girl on the Train, our 21st-century worries surface: Rachel, for instance, can’t stop Facebook-stalking Tom, whose posts of his happy family drive her into depression spirals. Cell phones are everywhere, and drunk-calling an ex (though, curiously, not drunk-texting) is habitual.
Other social anxieties surface as well. In a brief scene in which Rachel comments on the accent of Kamal Abdic (Édgar Ramírez), the therapist, it’s clear that the movie wants to say something about how we treat outsiders, whether they’re immigrants or alcoholic divorcees — and how, more broadly, the pre-conceived ideas we bring to any criminal case affect what seems "obviously" true. (That’s something the current wave of true-crime entertainment seems calculated to address as well.)
It also just feels really silly
But The Girl on the Train drops that theme fast — too fast. Everything happens too fast in this movie. Hardly 10 minutes in, the plot derangement meter starts to top out. Then, every 10 minutes some new overwrought revelation pushes the needle even further into the red. It becomes purely goofy. (At my screening, the audience laughed in more than a few places where they obviously weren’t meant to laugh.)
For a while I couldn’t figure out why all the emphatically shocking revelations felt so much wackier than they did in the novel. But the problem is something the movie couldn’t avoid, as it turns out: It’s just a movie, and it lasts less than two hours; the book by contrast clocks in at a healthy 336 pages. So the rate at which the plot-bombs are doled out in the book is slower, which keeps them from feeling as silly — you and the characters have a little time to recover.
Yet the zany plot could be forgiven if it was aware of its own absurdity. Curiously, though, the film seems to be trying to both ape and update a mid-century melodrama, but without the self-awareness the best ones display. And in 2016, that’s an especially egregious problem. Today, portrayals of suburbia are expected to reveal some seedy underside — it’s hardly shocking. That’s the convention.
By the end, The Girl on the Train is empty and confused
The movie’s final shots suggest that in revenge lies freedom from constraining social mores, like the need to be tied to a man for one’s self worth. Whether this is an interesting critique in 2016 is an open issue, and depends, once again, on what the viewer brings to the table.
Back in the 1950s, this twist would have been truly subversive. In 2016, this revenge still counts as a "transparent romantic fantasy" of a sort — it’s just that the romance is in finding peace and freedom, in moving on.
And yet, if that’s the idea, then the effort to follow genre conventions so closely is a total misfire. It’s 2016, and the idea that you don’t need a man to make you worthy is just understood to be true by default. So maybe it’s romantic. But it’s hardly subversive.
Great social melodramas gave their characters what they wanted, and in so doing, they critiqued those very desires, the culture that created them, and — perhaps most importantly — the audience that’s pulling for them all along.
Here, though, it’s what we expected.
So then: What are we supposed to get here? Surely poor, put-upon Rachel deserves some justice. Definitely the baddies need to go. But is The Girl on the Train trying to be ironic, indicting the characters (and us) for thinking we ought not take abuse, emotional and otherwise, from men? Or does it just not get the social and moral critique that made its predecessors great? And if it’s borrowing the aesthetics of its touchpoints without tapping into their core, then why bother telling the story at all?
The Girl on the Train probably seemed like ripe source material for a new kind of suburban melodrama movie, one with all the sex, blood, drunk black-outs, and evil men required of a pulpy thriller. But even if the end result weren’t sloppy and silly — and it is — when it’s all over, we’re not left with romance, or with irony, or with something to think about. We’re just left with a hollow, burned-out shell of an earlier era’s blistering social critique.