Editor’s Note: This review is completely spoiler-free! Enjoy the ride.
It’s funny, but it feels as though, a few years ago, Hollywood finally got hip to the idea that the way women in which wade through the world’s expectations of them can result in brilliantly unreliable narrators, the sort you got from a real hardboiled mystery thriller. The psychological baggage that comes with simply existing is meaty territory for weaving a story through both the audiences’ expectations and those placed on the character herself. And that is exactly what drives the narrative center of director Tate Taylor’s (The Help) adaptation of The Girl on the Train—sometimes expectations will betray you.
Told through a disjointed timeline and multiple narratives, The Girl on the Train is basically a PSA about the very real, very messed up consequences of gaslighting. Based on the best-selling novel by Paula Hawkins, the film follows three distinct female narratives, anchored by our protagonist Rachel (Emily Blunt), an alcoholic divorced woman barely hanging on to her own life and sense of the world. Anna (Rebecca Ferguson), the second wife of Rachel’s ex-husband Tom (Justin Theroux), and Megan (Haley Bennett) also have their own way of experiencing the apparent unraveling of Rachel, the mysterious disappearance/murder that sends a jolt through their lives, and understanding of each other (in the vaguest of terms). These intersecting viewpoints reveal something that we likely knew all along, the fact that sometimes expectations—of themselves, of each other, of how stories like this usually go—ruin everyone’s lives.
Here’s the thing: you can’t talk about this film without talking about Gone Girl, try as one might to avoid it. It always feels like a disservice to compare and contrast rather than discuss something on its own merits—especially “lady” stuff, because it happens constantly—but the similarities in structure, themes, and generally unreliable female narrator bits are too overt to eschew completely. Call it a burgeoning genre, a “wait, girls can be scary and/or dangerous, too” studio realization or what-have-you, but the two books-turned-films share a cinematic DNA that links them as the world continues to dismantle its traditional ideas about female characters.
The stories diverge in many ways, obviously, but the tension created by their subversive, unreliable POVs have truly been positioned as a revelation in recent years. Broken, flawed women; wanderlust and want; fight or flight—when dissected through the lens of a non-traditional narrator (read: anyone but a white dude), feels like “something new” that screenwriters have only truly embraced in recent years. And in this way, The Girl on the Train adaptation is admirable. The viewer feels the same dread that Rachel does as she attempts to piece together a night of drinking gone dangerously awry (which is a fairly common occurrence as she is an alcoholic). They go through the same stages of grief, anxiety, and desperation to know the truth—even if the truth makes itself fairly evident early on. In this way, The Girl on the Train does a great job of piecing together a complicated narrative structure.
But at the same time, there is a distinct lack in emotional pay-off because the structure—which lends itself to a semi-shocking reveal on the page—feels far less shocking on screen. At times, the film is lumbering in its attempts to get to the next turn or development in understanding the larger narrative. (And then there’s the ending, which… oof.) If you believe your audience is smart enough to keep up with the disjointed story, you should then also give them a bit more credit on the exposition side of things, too. Sometimes less is more, and there’s certainly 10 to 12 minutes of this film that would’ve benefitted from this sort of narrative fine-tuning.
Acting-wise, the film is stacked with incredible talents and convincing characterizations, and Blunt brims with anxious dread in a way that’s wholly convincing. Her foil, Ferguson’s Anna, is also a truly riveting evolution to watch. If you’re looking for a perfect adaptation this is not it, but it is still an enjoyable ride if you’re looking for a fascinating psychological thriller on a Friday or Saturday night. Just don’t expect too much.
Rating: 3 out of 5 commuting burritos:
The Girl on the Train opens Friday, October 7th. Are you going to check it out? Let us know in the comments below.
Image: Universal Pictures