The Girl on the Train (2016) Review

Some movies based on books have a definite adapted feel to them. Usually this feeling manifests itself in scenes that seem extraneous to the plot of the film. Other times there may be an unnecessary focus on supporting characters when all audiences want is to keep following the main character’s story. In the world of visuals where two-minute-long trailers can make viewers feel like they’ve seen the entire movie, The Girl on the Train definitely feels like awkward in this storytelling medium. Nevertheless, it’s well done, well-acted, and well worth the few hours invested.

Rachel (Emily Blunt) takes the train to and from work every day and looks out the window at the houses by the tracks. In one house, she sees a very happy couple that – to her – exemplifies the kind of marriage Rachel has always wanted. A couple of houses over, is where Rachel’s ex-husband, Tom (Justin Theroux) lives with his new wife, Anna (Rebecca Ferguson). Rachel never quite got over Tom and, coupled with her blackout binge drinking, she constantly harasses Tom, going so far as to enter his home and take his baby out of the house. One evening, bleary-eyed from alcohol, Rachel gets off the train by Tom’s house to confront him, but sees Anna in the distance instead. The last thing Rachel remembers is yelling at Anna before waking up the next morning covered in blood and bruises. She finds out that the wife from the happy couple living near Tom has gone missing. With her memories broken and incomplete, Rachel doesn’t know if she has information that could help find the missing woman or if she’s responsible for the woman disappearing.

A faulty memory is always an engrossing storytelling convention, because it turns at least part of the story into a mystery that audiences get to unravel along with the character. This is what makes Rachel so compelling. If the film had focused more on her and presented the story as post-blackout, then I think the film could reach its goal of being a thriller rather than just a drama about a sad woman. Instead, the film gives the audience more information than the character has, showing us scenes that Rachel can’t remember or isn’t part of. Ultimately, we’re just waiting for the film to explain what happened rather than piece together clues to come to the conclusion ourselves.

Not having read the novel version of The Girl on the Train I can only assume that the best balance between the book and film formats was struck. That being said, the film version does feel imbalanced throughout. This is especially noticeable in the first half hour when the film introduces the three main women, Rachel, Anna, and the wife in the perfect couple, Megan (Haley Bennett). Rather than jump into an inciting incident that audiences can quickly process, the movie forces audiences to consume a lot of information about the women while not knowing what details are important to remember for the main plot going forward. Other aspects that feel like concessions to the book are extraneous characters, like Rachel’s roommate (Laura Prepon), and scenes that don’t have any impact on the story, like Rachel going to Alcoholics Anonymous. While these details help flesh out the world, good storytelling knows when to omit unnecessary information.

The acting from all of the players is top notch, especially from Bennett and Blunt. Blunt, in particular, commands every scene she’s in and is evidence of what a skilled actor can produce when given interesting things to do and say. Moreover, it’s refreshing to see an otherwise beautiful looking performer willing to shed her strongest attribute to allow audiences to focus on her strong talent as an actress.

Without a doubt, The Girl on the Train is a film made for women. All of the important characters are women. The protagonist is a woman. The victim is a woman. Even the lead detective investigating the disappearance is a woman. What makes this particularly interesting is that there is a lot of sex and sexuality in this film, which is palpably missing from films that are ostensibly geared for men. There was a time when gratuitous shots of sex and sexy women were a staple of action movies, but it seems like Hollywood has reached a place where those things are only allowed with the permission of women. All of that notwithstanding, men who are dragged to this movie by their wives and girlfriends will at least have something to keep their attention. And they’ll also get a pretty good film out of the bargain, too.