Based on the novel that purportedly “shocked the world”, The Girl on the Train stars Emily Blunt as an alcoholic divorcee who gets wrapped up in a murder-mystery. Do the shocks transfer from the page? Lee wouldn’t know, he didn’t read the book, but find out what he thought in his review.
As a reflective or intensive character piece, The Girl on the Train fails because its characters live and die by their connection to the mystery and nothing else. Two-dimensional traits are grafted to each character, backstories artificially injected, but it never affects a character’s actions in any meaningful way that justifies their inclusion. Sure, Rachel’s an alcoholic, but as the story unravels it both takes away that trait’s impact, using it simply as a plot device to prevent the audience from solving the mystery too quickly, and is outright abandoned by movie’s end. And sure, Megan has a pretty traumatic backstory, but does it actually affect her role in the story? She doesn’t behave any different before or after, it doesn’t instigate any meaningful exchange or action. Behaviours and actions seem to exist purely as filler, as decoration to the mystery that never actually mean anything to any of the characters involved.
But maybe that’s ok, because then we don’t mind if one of them is the murderer, right? They’re all equally unlikeable; we’re only told to support Rachel because we follow her most, but not until much later in the film are we actually given any reason to be on her side, and by then it’s much too late. With no discernible side to take or cause to attach to for half the movie, audiences will likely hit the mid-section wondering what’s the point in going on?
Worse still, this movie’s outlook on men is absolutely poisonous: not only are all men in the film sex-driven beasts who exist only to threaten and demean the women of the story, they actually serve as something of a scapegoat for all the problems the female characters have as well. It’s strikingly sexist, and misses a great opportunity to take a harsh yet accessible look at the effects of abuse in relationships to focus on some cheap twists that paint the men as cartoon characters and the women less interesting and less real by association.
Yet the film is decently put together; there are some great performances from the cast, some memorable characters we have yet to see in modern cinema like the alcoholic antagonist female lead and the cool, above-it-all, relatively grounded cop character. Scenes in which Rachel is portrayed drunk are genuinely unnerving, and while it blows off the stakes by the end, it does probably get its message across that drink can actively ruin lives.
And while some character reveals involve 180-degree turns to cover up a poorly put-together mystery narrative, it’s hard not to be invested in the absolute madness of it all. From the convenient gaps in forensic logic with the murder scene, to the bafflingly handled characterisation of the victim, to the murderer’s inevitable reveal, there’s just something affable in how poor the story and filmmaking is here at points.
And of course, nitpicks: the narration adds absolutely nothing and is abandoned within five minutes as it always is, used only to disguise the filmmakers’ lack of faith in letting the scene or dialogue tell the story for them. Character introduction text, set up like chapter headings, is also abandoned inexplicably, missing an opportunity to bring a little style to this lack of substance. And for murder-mystery fans of even moderate exposure, the sheer pressure being laid on characters to be considered suspects should indicate who is and who isn’t potentially the murderer in this whodunit very early on.
Still, it keeps you invested, in a Prometheus kind of way, and might only reveal how terrible it was to you after the movie ends and you think it over, in a Prometheus kind of way. In other words, it’s not wholly incompetent or without redeeming qualities, it’s just been done better before and certainly with a better outlook on gender roles and expectations. The talent involved deserved a better story to support their efforts; blame suburbia.