It’s a feeling familiar to most of us. You wake up, sore and sad and missing parts of the previous evening. Into those memory gaps creeps a dull, insistent fear; ‘What did I do? What did I say?’ The Girl on the Train stretches that paranoia to its logical conclusion.
Rachel (Emily Blunt) spends the film’s dreamy opening aimlessly riding the train, getting and staying very drunk and Facebook stalking her ex-husband Tom (Justin Theroux). Mainly though, she watches a desperately attractive couple, Megan (Haley Bennet) and Scott (Luke Evans) from the train window, and projects upon them the warmth and detail her own life so palpably lacks (“He has a good laugh, she can’t cook.”)
The couple, as it turns out, are connected to Tom – they live nearby and Megan babysits the daughter he has had with Anna (Rebecca Ferguson), the woman for whom he left Rachel. One day, as Rachel spies Megan kissing a man who isn’t Scott. The image of these strangers as a perfect couple is all Rachel has to cling to, and she takes this infidelity very personally. After another night of heavy drinking, Rachel sets out to confront Megan. The next morning she wakes, sore and sad and missing large parts of the evening, with blood on her shirt and bruises on her arm. Megan is missing, and the investigating detective (Allison Janney) seems particular interested in Rachel. Snatches of violence keep replaying in Rachel’s head. But what does she remember and what has she merely fantasised?
Seemingly without really knowing why, Rachel involves herself in Scott’s life and the investigation. Does she wish to clear her name, does she wish to replace Megan, or is she just addicted to the bruise jabbing of seeing Tom and Anna and the family she’ll never have?
With its chilly colour palette, bursts of shocking violence, and focus on the gaps between who we are, who we think we are, and who we are to other people, The Girl on the Train draws obvious parallels with Gone Girl. And as with Gone Girl, its source is a novel by a woman, it’s been adapted by a man, and in that process, both have taken on some troubling depictions of gender. Among the points warranting a feminist critique, the revealing that Rachel, Megan and Anna’s problems all directly linked to maternal failures is only the most obvious.
The cast is rock solid, and Blunt in particular is incredible as someone desperately crawling through their lowest ebb. She is pitiable, and at times unbearable (just like every broken down drunk is) and yet her desperation and confusion are so recognisably human, we can’t help but sympathise with her. And yet we know that in part, her motivations and actions are secret even from herself. The queasy tension between these facts is the best part of the film.
In some ways a film like The Girl on the Train is experienced as two films. The ‘forward’ viewing, as we orient ourselves, decide who we trust and who we don’t and prepare for the moment the rug is pulled out. Then there’s the reveal – which prompts the ‘backwards’ viewing. How does what we know now integrate with what we ‘knew’ before? Like too many films of this sort, the reveal at the heart of The Girl on the Train raises more questions than it answers and the film doesn’t seem to know what to do after it’s been delivered, making the final 15 minutes slow and perfunctory.
Before this, director Tate Taylor’s camera intimately captures Blunts foggy stumble through life, and the dull, bitter ache where actual feeling used to be. It’s says a lot about its star that The Girl on the Train works so much better as a character study than it does a thriller.