With a confident and intelligent director at the helm and a transformative lead performance from Emily Blunt, The Girl on the Train is both a superb adaptation of Paula Hawkins’ novel and an excellent thriller on its own merits.
Doesn’t sound like much of a ticket seller for a movie, no?
But alas it’s a topic that filmmakers have never shied away from exploring and interpreting in unique and different ways. Sam Mendes famously did it with the indelible American Beauty, as did David Fincher more recently with Gone Girl, both films lacing their idyllic settings with a dark side to the humanity of their characters. As you may well already know from Paula Hawkins’ 2015 book of the same name, The Girl on the Train, directed by Tate Taylor, is yet another film in this vein. Is it as fantastically successful as what has come before? No, but to dwell too heavily on that is to discredit what is a superbly directed, acted and constructed thriller, which will serve as a more than satisfactory screen adaptation for fans of the book.
The film tells the story of the titular girl, Rachel (Emily Blunt), a troubled, alcoholic, divorcee who commutes every day on the train to Manhattan, each journey is the same and she passes the same road of houses, stopping long enough to observe them. Among those that Rachel sees daily is that of a beautiful, yet mysterious couple (played by Luke Evans and Haley Bennett) who seem to live the perfect life, a marriage and life that Rachel pines for. This is made all the more difficult for Rachel given that her ex-husband Tom (Justin Theroux) and his new wife Anna (Rebecca Ferguson) live just a few houses away with their child. But through all of this snooping, Rachel sees something she shouldn’t and soon becomes drawn much more into the lives of these strangers than she ever could have expected.
If you’ve read the book, then put aside any pre-conceived perceptions or judgements of Emily Blunt as Rachel, and if you haven’t then get ready to admire a more complex and totally different performance than what we’ve seen Blunt deliver before. She is outstanding; damaged, conflicted, helpless and passionate, it’s a role which asks a lot from Blunt but she hits the mark. It’s convincingly ambiguous, credit for this must also go to Taylor whose direction never allows us to truly sympathise or side with any of these characters. Blunt’s conviction makes it that much harder to support this supposed “hero” of the story.
Haley Bennett’s performance as Megan, the female of Rachel’s obsession, plays out in a similar vein. As her story unravels, Bennett is really able to sink her teeth into the role and manipulate the image of her character and our perception of her. Megan is a devilishly devious individual and Bennett truly does the character justice giving a performance with real bite and venom. Whilst they may not be served with as much screen time as Blunt and Bennett in particular, Luke Evans and, of course, Allison Janney are undoubtedly the other stand out performances from the ensemble. Evans, who plays Megan’s husband Scott, plays his role with similar venom to Bennett as he offers yet another ambiguous and intriguing performance for the film. The characterisation, whilst not particularly deep on backstory, is a fantastic aspect to this film. And whilst Janney may be playing a rather generic police role, she is, as always, stellar as she delivers real authority and control in her performance despite her limited material.
The way The Girl on the Train is edited and constructed also helps us to greatly understand the characters and their motives and inner mechanisms. Similarly to how the book is told, the film generally focuses on Emily Blunt, Haley Bennett and Rebecca Ferguson’s characters and the three parallel stories of these three totally different individuals, who may have a lot more in common than we originally think. I won’t spoil their arcs and stories but it’s an excellent piece of craftsmanship from Tate Taylor and his direction shines. To go back to the idea of the suburban nightmare, the motifs and symbolism employed by Taylor create a great deal of intrigue and, to a certain extent, thought provocation. The images of the train, the exposed rear views of the houses and subsequent lives within them play on our insecurities and judgement-based fears. Taylor likes to play up the idea that no one has any secrets and that our private lives are now the pleasurable viewings of others. But the idyllic married (and family) life is also shattered as we see the despicable and dislikeable underbelly of these people and their tormented lives. And it’s all through Rachel’s eyes; our opinion of these people is further distorted as is our opinion on Rachel.
But whilst the majority of the film works, there are a few slip ups. Its stumbles out of the blocks and takes time to really settle. There are some clunky and unnatural moments in the script both in dialogue and narration and it’s a bit of a rush to get into the characters and story. Regardless of its fantastic overall build, the film tries to throw a little too much to see what sticks at first but it soon manages to organise itself. The performances take a little while to settle as well, Bennett in particular seems too unnatural in her performance before her intentions with the role become clearer and she seems more comfortable. It could take some time to adapt to Blunt’s performance also given how drastically different this is to her usual work, but nonetheless do not let yourself be deterred from her performance too quickly.
Despite a few early stumbles, The Girl on the Train is a dark thriller anchored by a fantastic performance from Emily Blunt and held together by some excellent direction from Tate Taylor. A fantastic build and an intriguing mystery will keep you enthralled and gripped right until the last scene.
The Girl on the Train, directed by Tate Taylor, is distributed by Entertainment One. Certificate 12A.