A slow and boring ride
If you’ve ever been drunk on the commute (guilty) you’ll agree that time comes to a standstill and as soon as you find a seat to park your drunken ass, the warm fuzz from too many beers will turn into a tedious mix of trying to look sober, staying awake and forgetting that the beautiful man you were chatting up was in fact a pimply female sporting a monobrow.
Most of The Girl on the Train relies on Emily Blunt’s ability to play a credible drunk since the central character from Paula Hawkin’s bestselling novel (from which the movie is adapted – I’m stressing that for those who have been in a coma for the last couple of years) is a drunken mess. And boy is she credible.
Her first talking scene, in which she has a brief encounter with a fellow commuter during one of those tedious, long train rides – yes, director Tate Taylor manages to brilliantly capture the tedium of commute; is spot on. Eyes too wide open, voice a little too loud, slightly jerky delivery. She perfectly plays the drunk that wants to act sober but fails; the person that has sunk so low that there are actually very few moments when she’s neither drunk nor hungover, but somewhere in between – her lips permanently crusty from dehydration, her giant confused eyes permanently on the brink of tears, a testimony of what a nightmare she is having.
And yes, her life is a complete nightmare.
Her character, Rachel, was cheated on then left by her husband Tom (Justin Theroux) after they failed to get pregnant and she started drinking heavily. Tom has since married Anna (Rebecca Ferguson), the woman he left her for and to add insult to injury, they had a baby. Rachel’s daily commute passes Tom and Anna’s house twice a day, and twice a day she cranes her neck in a masochist attempt to absorb the happiness of the family.
Those glimpses aren’t enough however, and when she’s tanked, Rachel turns into a bitter stalker, alternating drunken visits to the couple’s house and abusive voice mails followed by lots of hung-over self-loathing.
A couple of houses down from Tom and Anna live another couple, Scott (Luke Evans) and Megan (Haley Bennett), who Rachel has also become obsessed with as they seem to be the perfect couple, the living embodiment of love, the representation of what she once had and lost.
One day, as the train passes Scott and Megan’s house, she sees Megan kissing another man, the image destroying her rose-tinted glasses and breaking her heart once again. She decides to follow Megan to confront her and wakes up the next morning in a pool of blood, with no recollection of what has happened apart from shaky memories that don’t add up.
That same day, she hears that Megan has disappeared. Feeling that the balcony kiss is related to her disappearance and desperate to find a purpose in life other than glugging cheap vodka on a train ride over and over again, Rachel tries to solve the mystery of Megan’s disappearance, all the while generating disdain and exasperation from the other characters.
In Paula Hawkins’s gripping thriller the chapters alternate the narratives of Rachel, Anna and Megan. As the book goes on, the reader discovers how interlinked the lives of those three characters are and how nothing is what it seems and how no one is who they claim to be. And it’s this distorted reality, rendered even more intriguing by the unreliable protagonists – and missing information that is drip fed until the big dramatic finale – that makes it so difficult to put down. Although some of it is predictable, even those that figured it out will want to read it till the end and experience the satisfaction of seeing every piece of the puzzle finally find its place.
Unfortunately, that sluggish, slow and chaotic pace that encapsulates Rachel’s constant confusion so well, Anna’s boredom and Megan’s reluctance to share the details of her past doesn’t work out in the movie. This is partly due to a struggle with alternating those three narratives and multiple timelines, which translates into long, boring scenes filmed in a gloomy light (think Fincher but without the flair), overly blurry and repetitive flashbacks bordering on an ITV docudrama reconstruction, and endless unnecessary close-ups. But it is mainly because the characters aren’t developed enough on screen and lack substance.
Although the protagonists in the book are a little caricatured and gender stereotypical – bored, spoiled shallow housewife; young lost lamb with a shady past; over-possessive brute; violent narcissistic sociopath – they are an inherent and necessary part of the story.
Sadly, they fail to make an impression in the movie and become instantly forgettable thanks to a wooden and over-acrimonious delivery from the women and an equally wooden (and shouty) delivery from the men.
Tom’s unhinged behaviour only kicks in in the last few scenes, and he’s not present enough prior to that to shed that smudge of doubt, that occasional wonder about his true personality and actions. This gives Justin Theroux little to act with prior to the big melodramatic finale.
His wife on set, Rebecca Ferguson, comes across as a preoccupied stay-at-home mum, unnerved by Rachel’s stocking. She lacks the selfish, self-satisfied, spoiled vanity that makes her a more interesting and less forgettable character in the book. The opposite goes for Scott, who’s only shown in his worst light as he is reduced to a jealous and overly angry mess. In the book he’s initially some kind of ally to Rachel, the only person who is ready to hear her out and give her some kind of credit, a reason for her to try to clean up as well as a pretty inappropriate drunken love interest. The latter is an element that Tate Taylor didn’t think would be worth mentioning in the movie even though it highlights how low Rachel has sunk, how desperate she is for human contact and how her poor drunken choices make her a liability to all, especially herself.
Scott’s sulky wife, Megan, sees a psychiatrist to get over her brother’s death as well as to discuss Scott’s over-possessiveness and make peace with the suburban life she chose and now regrets. Haley Bennett’s distant coldness doubled with her slightly childish provocative promiscuity make her an interesting character and she easily steals focus in the several scenes she shares with Edgar Ramirez, who either acts marvelously well as a psychiatrist (doesn’t show any emotion) or doesn’t act at all (doesn’t show any emotion). However, it seems that the stories she shares with the shrink – including spilling out her 20-year-old secret in a teary emotional scene – add little to the plot.
The lack of substance of those characters makes it all the more easy for Emily Blunt to shine through. She, however, isn’t repulsive enough. Where the book describes her in a truly unflattering light, she’s only shown as mildly unpleasant and generates pity more than disgust.
With the characters being simplified, the story takes a hit too, going from an intense thriller with endless ramifications to a simple whodunnit whose main characters are teary, victimised women upset by baby-related topics (one has one, one had one, one wants one) and twisted, angry men driven by their testosterone-infused rage.
This is a shame as the essence of Paula Hawkin’s story relies on those questionable characters made interesting by their unpleasantness, wrongdoings and multidimensional psyches. It seems Tate Taylor adopted a black and white approach to the protagonists and stripped them to down to a few simple characteristics. Sadly, this is the film’s downfall.
Movie Review by Barbara Fieschi Jones