THE AISLE SEAT - by Mike McGranaghan
"THE GIRL ON THE TRAIN"
The Girl on the Train, based on the best-selling Paula Hawkins novel, is both exhilarating and frustrating. Exhilarating in that it's a rare mainstream Hollywood film filled with strong female characters, frustrating in that the storytelling around those characters is needlessly muddled. Parts of the movie are incredibly engaging, but every time it seems like the picture as a whole is going to take off, director Tate Taylor (The Help) slams on the brakes with his storytelling method.
Emily Blunt plays Rachel, a depressed alcoholic woman who rides the train to and from New York City every day. She repeatedly stares out the window as she passes the house where she used to live. Her ex-husband Tom (Justin Theroux) now lives there with his new wife Anna (Rebecca Ferguson). A couple doors down lives their nanny Megan (The Magnificent Seven's Haley Bennett) and her husband Scott (Luke Evans). Rachel is obsessed with Megan, whom she perceives to have a perfect life. One day, Megan goes missing and Rachel, who is prone to blackouts, begins to wonder if she is responsible, given that they had an unpleasant encounter shortly beforehand. She tries to put the pieces together, leading to a series of revelations that turn her world upside down.
By far, the best quality of The Girl on the Train is the strength of the performances. The main characters are all three-dimensional, which gives the lead actresses a lot to work with. Emily Blunt is outstanding as Rachel, expertly capturing the way active alcoholics sometimes stand by helplessly, watching as their lives spiral out of control. We sense all the pain and anguish that drive her to escape through booze, as well as the dawning realization that her drunken behavior may have unintended repercussions. Blunt very authentically plays a woman coming apart at the seams.
Haley Bennett, meanwhile, nails the most important characteristic of Megan: she's unhappy because she's unsure of who she is. Over the course of the story, we learn that Megan is an overtly sexual being, perhaps even someone who seeks acceptance through her sexuality. In the wrong hands, that trait could have come off unsympathetically. Bennett, like Blunt, finds the humanity inside a deeply troubled woman. Rebecca Ferguson has a smaller role, but she provides Anna with several different layers. On one hand, she's a happy wife and mother, but there's a darker side to her, as well. The always-reliable Allison Janney is here, too, playing a detective looking into Megan's disappearance. She brings a sense of authority that the story benefits from.
Hawkins' novel is told from the switching viewpoints of its central trio, a trait the film attempts to replicate. The approach isn't entirely successful. Taylor over-relies on flashbacks to accomplish this. Sometimes there are abrupt, context-free snippets of things that will be explained later on. Other times, he depends on titles informing us that the scene about to unfold occurred “one month ago” or “last Friday.” Following the plot is intermittently a little tricky for this reason. It also has the effect of making it difficult to ever fully become engrossed in the story. The Girl on the Train has a lot of dramatic events going on, but it doesn't assemble them in a manner that builds the requisite tension. (See Gone Girl for a fine example of how to pull off the multi-POV style.) The final ten minutes, which contain what is intended to be a big reveal about Megan's fate, feel underwhelming because of the lack of tension leading up to them.
Similarly, the movie would have been better served going into more detail on one particularly vital element. Late in the movie, Rachel discovers something about her drunken blackouts. It's an important revelation – one that is treated as a generic plot point here mainly to carry the movie to its finish line. The Girl on the Train would have felt so much more substantive, and less like a potboiler, had that been capitalized upon more fully.
Even though the performances are stellar, the movie itself is something of a letdown. The raw materials are present for a nail-biting thriller. The Girl on the Train never induces the suspense it clearly wants to, though. Blunt, Bennett, and Ferguson give their all, carrying the film as far as they can. Through no fault of their own, it simply isn't far enough.
( 1/2 out of four)
The Girl on the Train is rated R for violence, sexual content, language and nudity. The running time is 1 hour and 52 minutes.
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