“The Girl on the Train” is desperately trying to be “Gone Girl” sometimes, and a Brian DePalma film at others, but it can never quite get the tone right. As a mystery the film is fairly enjoyable and watchable, even if the film doesn’t play fair with the mystery in an attempt to get you to not see the obvious conclusion from a mile away, but it never quite digs beneath the surface to saying anything, even though this material obviously wants to say something (I haven’t read the novel, so perhaps the book makes its messages more clearly), and the tone of the film, while not falling into Lifetime movie melodrama like it could have, never quite has the darkness or sharp edges it needs to really hit you.
*THIS REVIEW WILL CONTAIN MASSIVE SPOILERS**
The film begins with Rachel Watson, played very well by Emily Blunt. Blunt’s performance is much better than the film around her deserves. Rachel is a broken woman, an alcoholic who rides the rain from Jersey to New York every day, twice a day. Partially this is to spy on the home she used to share with her ex-husband, Tom (Justin Theroux). Tom is now married to Anna (Rebecca Ferguson) and has a baby girl. The other reason is to look at the woman who lives two houses down from Tom. This woman is Megan (Haley Bennett), of whom Rachel imbues her own fantasy life upon, since she actually knows nothing about Megan. One day, while riding the train, she sees Megan kiss someone who is not Megan’s husband, and Rachel’s fantasy life comes crashing down. Rachel’s marriage ended when Tom cheated on her with Anna, so she takes the possibility of Megan cheating on her husband very personally. One day, Rachel actually gets off the train, thinks she sees Megan, and sort of stumbles after her. She passes out and wakes up in her apartment covered in blood. We soon find out Megan went missing and, well, since Rachel blacked out and has no memory of what happened, we’re left to wonder if Rachel had anything to do with Megan’s disappearance. Or, at least, we would wonder if we had never seen a movie or read a book before. It’s pretty obvious that Rachel did not kill Megan, and at no time while watching the film did I even consider she would turn out to be the killer (it’s revealed sometime in the second act that Megan is, indeed, dead), so I’m not sure why the film even attempts, briefly and half-heartedly, to make us think Rachel might be responsible.
Rachel is still a little messed-up, though, so she takes it upon herself to try and solve the disappearance/murder by herself, while falling off and getting on the wagon repeatedly. Among the suspects the film provides us are Megan’s husband, Scott (Luke Evans), who is maybe abusive (he is), and Megan’s therapist, Dr. Abdic (Edgar Ramirez), with whom Megan at least attempted to seduce. The film doesn’t make it exactly crystal clear whether or not Megan and Dr. Abdic actually ever slept with each other, but I’m judging from context that they did not but that the doc was tempted. In any case, both end up being red herrings.
Did I mention that Megan was the nanny for Tom and Anna? Now I know what you’re saying: the nanny for a man who has previously cheated on a wife goes missing. Clearly he did it. Well, of course he did. So why is such an obvious solution sometimes put into question when you watch the film? It’s because the film doesn’t play fair in its use of flashbacks. You see, the film at different times uses multiple narrators, switching from Rachel (most of the time) to Megan (flashbacks) and briefly to Anna. There are times when the film shows us flashings of things we know we’re not supposed to take as literal, such as a fantasy sequence where Rachel imagines smashing Megan’s head into the kitchen floor. We know this is a fantasy because of the quick editing and shaky camera work combined with sharp cuts to the present. We are then, logically, to assume that flashbacks with camera work that matches the rest of the film proper, or match the flashbacks of Megan, who, unlike Rachel is not an alcoholic, and also not an unreliable narrator because she is dead and cannot lie to us, are truth. Film is a literal medium and if a film shows us something, as an audience we are meant to assume its truth within the film unless narratively or visually we are given reason not to. So, in some of Rachel’s flashbacks, we are shown Rachel acting crazy and abusive while drunk and Tom being as patient as he can with her until he finally starts cheating to escape her. Well, later in the film we find out those flashbacks are NOT objectively true and that Tom has actually been gaslighting Rachel for years when HE is the abusive one, and those flashbacks are just false memories Tom had placed into Rachel’s head. Those flashbacks are a big reason why the audience thinks twice about suspecting Tom, and I think the filmmakers, specifically director Tate Taylor, knows Tom is too obvious of a suspect and chose to film the fake flashbacks in an objective manner to throw the audience off, and it’s a cheating move to do so. I understand watching to try to patch up a shoddy mystery (perhaps the book does it better as it deals with text language and not the visual language of cinema) but doing it this way is cheap and a fucking cheat.
Also, Megan is dead. She has no reason to hide anything from the audience. Why, then, do her flashbacks not contain any hint or evidence of her obviously very important-to-her-life affair with Tom? There is no narrative reason why Megan’s flashbacks would obfuscate us from this life event, except for the fact that it casts more light on the already obvious suspect of Tom. Quite simply, those flashbacks are held from us by the outside filmmakers, not for any in-universe reason. It’s a crap move and shitty, unfair writing. Compare this with “Gone Girl”, where the fake narration from the female lead is explained in-universe as a diary left behind as fake evidence to frame her husband. We are given a legitimate story reason for those lies to be presented to us, the audience (or reader). “The Girl on the Train” cheats because there is no other way to keep its obvious solution from us. That’s not clever, it’s just bad writing. I don’t know if the blame should go to director Taylor, screenwriter Erin Cressida Wilson, or author Paula Hawkins, but since Hawkins hasn’t written any mysteries prior to this, Taylor’s only directed the bland “The Help” and the bland “Get On Up”, and Wilson has written scripts for good films like “Secretary” and “Chloe”, I’m inclined to blame the former two and not Wilson.
Another issue I had with the film is its almost perverse obsession with motherhood. Rachel sinks into alcoholism because she can’t have a kid (Tom and her try IVR and it doesn’t take, and they say they can’t afford it again even though they live in a very expensive house in a very posh neighborhood). Megan had a kid at 17 and fell asleep in the bathtub with the baby cradled to her chest, accidentally drowning it. After that, she never wants kids, leading her husband Scott to abuse her. When she becomes pregnant with Tom’s kid, he kills her to keep it secret. Oh, and Tom’s motives are basically that he’s horny and cheated Rachel because she was too drunk and sad to want sex, and cheats on Anna because she’s too tired taking care of the baby to want sex too. So, that’s four baby-related plot catalysts in one film. It’s almost bad enough, from a gender studies perspective, that our three main characters are all severely fucked up, damaged women and are all victims of abuse…but to make their motherhood or lack thereof defining characteristics of their lives and the reason abuse is dealt on them is…problematic to say the least. Top that with the film almost inviting us to judge Megan harshly for her promiscuity (women at yoga give her dirty looks, presumably just for being hot, and she tries really hard to seduce her therapist even though he rebuffs her…not to mention the whole sleeping with Tom while watching his kid thing) and tying her promiscuity to accidentally killing her child and…well…I would say this movie was misogynist, but the fact that of the film’s three main male characters we have a murdering, gaslighting abuser, an plain ol’ abusive husband, and a doctor who still crosses lines with a patient without actually having sex with her, means that the male gender doesn’t come off very well either. Maybe the film just hates all of humanity.
The last possibility is that the film is trying to saying something about class. The original novel takes place in England, where society is a lot more conscious of class than the United States is. Perhaps the setting of an idyllic, upper-class suburban neighborhood teaming with abuse and infidelity was meant as a social commentary, but that sure doesn’t come across in the film. If anything, the film’s view of a dark undercurrent in that type of locale is pretty generic and clichéd by now if that’s all you’re saying. You have to be sharper with satire or with message than that in an age where we’ve already had “Blue Velvet” and “American Beauty”, among countless other films.
“The Girl on the Train” is an entertaining film while you watch it, but when you stand up from your chair and begin walking out of the theater, all of the film’s flaws flood you immediately. You can’t have a good mystery if the story and the filmmaking are going to cheat the way this film does. The gender politics are really, really messed up. Any social commentary is so far under the surface that you can’t even see it. This film needed a better director to bring out the subtext, darkness, and a sharper edge. C+