The Girl on the Train, review: Contrived thriller is a jolting and confusing ride

This is a very over-determined and melodramatic affair that plays like a contemporary version of one of those steamy Eighties thrillers such as ‘Fatal Attraction’

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The Independent Culture

Dir: Tate Taylor, 111 mins, starring: Emily Blunt, Haley Bennett, Laura Prepon, Rebecca Ferguson, Luke Evans, Justin Theroux, Lisa Kudrow

You’ll need a spreadsheet to follow the multiple jumps back and forth in the timetable of new thriller The Girl On The Train. The plot whisks us two months, four months, a few days and sometimes even years into the past and then continually pulls us back into the present. It’s a jolting and confusing ride during which the filmmakers do everything they can to distort and blur reality.

This is a very over-determined and melodramatic affair that plays like a contemporary version of one of those steamy Eighties thrillers such as Fatal Attraction, albeit from a female perspective. There are no bunnies being boiled here but a scene with a corkscrew is likely to induce just as many gasps. In its final stretch, the film builds up considerable momentum. The hitch is that everything before then is so deeply contrived. Audiences may become exasperated by all the feints, tricks and reversals en route to the blood-spattered finale.

“What is it with you crazy women?” the husband Tom (Justin Theroux) exclaims late on in the movie. The women he is referring to are his ex-wife Rachel (Emily Blunt), his current wife Anna (Rebecca Ferguson) and the very glamorous young nanny Megan (Haley Bennett).

As first encountered, Rachel is commuting on the train to and from Manhattan, staring out of the window. She is glamorous but harassed and clearly tormented. Director Tate Taylor throws in continual big close-ups of her staring out of the train window as we hear her plaintive voice-over telling us that she “is not the girl she used to be”. Something has died within her. That’s why she gazes with such longing at the homes of her neighbours.

The screenplay by Erin Cressida Wilson (based on the novel by Paula Hawkins) tantalises us with slithers of often contradictory information. Rachel’s marriage to Tom has broken up. She appears to be harassing Tom and his new wife Anna. There are continual references to an instance in which she broke into their house (formerly her own home) and in which she picked up their baby. She is now an alcoholic and those closest to her talk of her over-active imagination.

Rachel has so many issues and domestic problems to deal with that she would surely exhaust the patience of even the most diligent agony aunt. It’s not just the booze that she drinks surreptitiously out of her water bottle. There’s the IVF she forlornly went through in her bid to have a baby, her seemingly extreme jealousy of Anna, her faltering career in PR and her own self-loathing. As narrators go, she could hardly be more unreliable. Her memory can’t be trusted and she has an uncanny knack of misinterpreting what she sees.

The Girl On The Train - Trailer 2

A little confusingly, given that the film seems to unfold from Rachel’s point of view, we also hear a voice over from Megan, the art gallery manager turned nanny. She is bored with life in the small suburban town she dubs “a baby factory” and who only feels any measure of contentment when she is out running, on her own. Bored with her own husband Scott (Luke Evans), she is up for affairs and delights in flirting with her good looking psychoanalyst (Edgar Ramirez).

Mid-way through, The Girl On The Train shifts tracks. Early on, it is shaping up as a drama about infidelity, divorce and family problems in the small commuter town. When one of the women disappears, we’re plunged into crime thriller territory. The detective (Alison Janney) investigating the case is not remotely sympathetic toward Rachel, seeing her as a needy and manipulative drunkard who can’t be trusted.

Blunt throws herself into her role as the tormented heroine. It’s the kind of masochistic part that Joan Crawford would have relished in an earlier era. This is a glossy, big-budget movie. Even when Rachel is drunk and at her most paranoid and distressed, Blunt still looks improbably glamorous. A bag lady she is not. She speaks with an English accent but we are given little of her back story. She doesn’t seem to have any family of her own. 

The sex scenes, shot in very glossy fashion, echo those in Eighties erotic thrillers but the violence, which takes place in kitchens and in parks, is surprisingly graphic. Heads are smashed open, necks are skewered, blood is spilt. 

The problem with the film’s slippery style and its heavy use of flashbacks is that it is hard to get any grasp on events. At times, you half expect that everything we are seeing is a projection of Rachel’s paranoid, alcohol-soaked imagination. Danny Elfman’s swirling music accentuates the dream-like feel. The filmmakers withhold so much information that audiences are likely to be left as baffled as Rachel herself.

None of the three main female protagonists is especially sympathetic. They’re all conspiring against one another and show no solidarity whatsoever. The main moral of the film, though, and one which we are bludgeoned with in the final reel, is that even if these women are bad, their menfolk are far, far worse.

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