In the hotly anticipated cinematic adaptation of Paula Hawkins' critically acclaimed, eponymous book, The Girl On the Train falls painfully short of its expectations. Attempts to conjure up novelty in the least novel of situations, results in an anticlimactic, poorly structured and imperatively forgettable film which won't even come close to being one of 2016's best efforts.
I write this gazing forlornly at a poster of David Fincher’s 2014 effort Gone Girl which sits happily on my wall amongst other cinematic ventures of similar degrees of excellency. In Fincher’s adaptation of the eponymous novel by Gillian Flynn, who also wrote its screenplay, abuse, both physical and emotional, and obsession reside as prominent themes nestled in the veins of its genuinely thrilling and, more importantly, watertight plot. It results in a concluding third act which somehow stands as both heart-poundingly cataclysmic and terrifyingly subtle, leaving a sickening wariness of all things romance and relationships. But it is the second act, following Amy’s ‘rescue’ by her high-school boyfriend Desi, which really strikes on something far more than subtle, or climactic, or believable; it strikes on something true.
Gone Girl’s Desi is one of the most well-written characters of recent cinema, and for one reason: because he is also one of the most chilling. Desi manipulates Amy through a terrifying abundance of emotional abuse, keeping her hidden away for his own perverse, controlling desires, playing the white knight role before snapping her away from the world, keeping her in the perfect, Barbie doll role to match his Ken under some compassionate, punishable house arrest. Desi isn’t creepy. Amy is his play-thing, under strict rules of his entitlement.
And now, with The Girl On The Train’s thundering arrival onto the big screen, we’re given another chance to poke our heads round the corner of what lies beneath the perfect family, and be grated by the possibilities of real-life addiction and obsession once more. Yet despite the roaring anticipation that has enveloped the build-up to the 5th October, and the promise of everything from haunting thrills to complex characters to well-crafted plot-twists, The Girl On the Train arrives as nothing more than a preposterous collage of misunderstood ideas and dramatisations of things best left opaque.
Shovelling the book’s original story-arc on a plane headed stateside, it follows Emily Blunt’s alcoholic Rachel Watson who commutes to New York City everyday on the train, gradually getting further and further invested in the lives of those that inhabit the houses she passes. Blonde and beautiful with the perfect life in tow, Megan is everything and has everything Rachel wants to be, and has bitterly lost when her husband cheated on her before promptly leaving and impregnating the other woman (Rebecca Ferguson). And what a coincidence, it just so happens they live as a happy family down the road from Megan, who works as their babysitter, before mysteriously going missing after Rachel catches sight of her canoodling with another man, all whilst Rachel incessantly disturbs her ex-husband’s chipper lifestyle with unwarranted phone calls. It’s all very thematic.
It’s frustratingly unclear whether director Tate Taylor (the name behind 2011 effort The Help) meant for The Girl On the Train to subside its central line of action and let the trauma of domestic abuse and violence to take the reins or not, but it sure seems that way. The thing with violence on screen, especially when it is so heftily anchored in your average, everyday relationship is that it’s difficult to show its intricacies. And, in such a situation, those intricacies are always there. Whilst Fincher managed to navigate through the issue by subtly alluding to Desi’s capabilities, Taylor attempts to shock his audience through multiple accounts of on-screen violence. This is not to say that some weren’t necessary, because of the story-arc some are inarguably warranted, but to shoot them with such a voyeuristic eye, scattered throughout the film like an incessant reminder of ‘THIS IS A FILM ABOUT ABUSE’ turns the abuse into a novelty. It’s like something to quell some perverse desire to see the raging beast of alcoholism rear its unsightly head before shocking the audience by (gasp) spinning it all around and trivialising it even further in the process. In actuality, it simply has a numbing effect, and appears more condescending than outrageous.
And whilst it has various moments of flair and sophistication, (a sequence where a drunken, dishevelled Rachel wanders into her old house and takes her ex-husband’s new baby outside in almost a trance is an apt example of expertly well-crafted tension) it comes across as being made by someone who only has a surface understanding of the subject matter they choose to delve so deep into. Its logic is flawed, its thematic vein is poorly understood, and its plot twists are all-too-convenient to have any real shock factor to them. Clues are dropped into Rachel’s lap like plot-points being thrown from a nearby window, which they might as well have been considering how many of them were lost three-quarters of the way through the film after Rachel finally starts remembering things. Clearly, the best way to structure a thriller about an alcoholic is always to rely on that one trait in its extreme sense to hold back information before letting her conveniently remember important plot-points for no apparent reason other than some half-hearted, and poorly understood attempt at subjectivity.
So whilst Gone Girl founds its tension within subtle allusions and potentialities, within the fear of what might happen and when, The Girl On the Train relies on a shock-factor tied loosely to domestic violence and emotional abuse, dramatizing it to the extent that it completely undermines its effects. And with an ending that reeks sky-high of utter implausibility, the novelty of abuse is driven home, less with a bang than with a murmur of something envisioned as shamelessly scandalous. And that really is a shame.
The Girl On the Train, directed by Tate Taylor, is distributed by Universal Pictures, certificate 12a.