Wednesday, October 5, 2016

'The Girl on the Train' review

As a society, we seem to love stories with big twists. Psycho's previews in the 1960s warned audiences not to give away the surprises, M. Night Shyamalan built his entire career on the twist ending, and earlier in the decade, Gillian Flynn's Gone Girl became a best-seller on the basis of its wild finale. Paula Hawkins' The Girl on the Train followed in the footsteps of Flynn's smash hit, selling millions of copies in spring 2015. It was another bona fide literary sensation, a trashy, lurid thriller built on unreliable characters and a whirlwind narrative. Hawkins' novel was destined for the big screen treatment, and after the (somewhat) surprising success of David Fincher's Gone Girl, expectations have been high for Tate Taylor's adaptation. And with a cast led by Emily Blunt, Rebecca Ferguson, Justin Theroux, and Haley Bennett, how could this movie go wrong?

Well, The Girl on the Train went very wrong (resisting the urge to say "derailed" here, like every other person who's seen this movie). After months of hearing about the shocking, disturbing, and utterly wild story of this phenomenon, it's disheartening for me to report that the most surprising thing about this dull thriller is how predictable it is. Even with a monumental performance by Emily Blunt, The Girl on the Train never even comes close to gripping the audience in any meaningful way. It's an entirely unsurprising mystery, a messy, incomplete character study, and a movie that is severely hurt by the natural comparisons to Gone Girl, a far superior and much more thematically relevant film. The Girl on the Train is slick, goofy, and completely hollow. It might just be one of the most disappointing films of the year.

Staged across multiple timelines and featuring a wide variety of characters, The Girl on the Train is a murder mystery about an alcoholic woman, her ex-husband, and the women she obsesses over. Rachel Watson (Emily Blunt) was once a promising art gallery owner, but after a nasty divorce from her ex-husband, Tom (Justin Theroux), she slipped into alcoholism and obsession. Rachel's latest fixation is a woman that she sees while riding the train everyday. Rachel has a story for her and her husband, and in her mind, they're the perfect couple living the dream. In reality, the woman's name is Megan Hipwell (Haley Bennett), and her life is far from idyllic. She sees a therapist (Edgar Ramirez) regularly, struggles with her husband (Luke Evans), and faces deep regret over mistakes in the past.

The final member of our main trio is Anna Watson (Rebecca Ferguson), the woman that Tom married in the aftermath of his divorce. Rachel almost has a stalker-like relationship with Anna, and after a particularly disturbing incident, Anna lives in fear. The paths of all three women will cross when Megan (who also works as Anna's nanny, to complicate things even further) mysteriously goes missing. On the night that Megan disappeared, Rachel was highly drunk, and the next morning she wakes up covered in blood and vomit. Did she murder Megan? Is there something more sinister going in? With a group of characters prone to lying, scheming, and the inability to trust their own thoughts, the mystery behind the vanishing of Megan Hipwell gets more and more twisted as the days go on.

Tate Taylor is a director who has consistently let me down, and even with higher expectations and hopes, The Girl on the Train is no less disappointing. The Help was overlong and hokey, Get on Up was scattered and unfocused, and well, I frankly don't even know where to start with this one. It's a movie that is passably entertaining in the moment, a polished, sleek piece of Hollywood pulp designed to have a chilly atmosphere and mood. But when you think about it for more than a second, you'll probably end up dissecting it to death. Girl on the Train is a massive, ambitious film, filled with a multitude of storylines, characters, and half-baked themes. Taylor throws everything at the screen in the hope that something will stick, and while he finds a few decent elements, this movie is a mess of ideas that never works. It's trying to be so many different things, and it just falls flat.

Let's break down what exactly this movie is trying to do, shall we? For starters, it attempts to be a character study for Rachel Watson. When the movie began, this clearly seemed like the direction that Taylor had decided was best for the material. And this part of the movie actually isn't bad. In fact, it's really good, mostly because of how stunning Emily Blunt is in this role. With Rachel, Blunt has created a chilling, unhinged, and gripping portrait of an alcoholic, a woman lost in the depressing tragedy of her life. When The Girl on the Train sticks to being The Emily Blunt Show, it's compelling and fascinating to watch. But as Rachel's character changes over the narrative, she stops being the focal point of the story. Her wacky, disturbing behavior just kinda stops, and any insight that Taylor and screenwriter Erin Cressida Wilson have into her obsession and pain goes out the window.

This happens because, out of nowhere, The Girl on the Train decides that it needs to be Gone Girl. Blunt sticks with Rachel, managing to make her both sympathetic and fearsome, but the movie abandons her character entirely. The inner turmoil of this wounded individual is secondary to an asinine, predictable, and dull mystery story that suffocates the movie. This is where the movie starts to implode, and there are some baffling choices made that I can't really justify in any way. I can't explain why there are no thrills, chills, or thought-provoking moments at all, nor can I explain the excessive character threads and subplots. I have not read the source material, so maybe it's better and more cohesive than the movie. But from what Taylor and Wilson gave us, I could not genuinely tell you why half of the characters in this movie receive the amount of screentime that they do.

Why do we need to know so much about Megan Hipwell? Is there any real reason for us to meet her therapist? What is the end result of all this madness? None of these threads go anywhere, and the fact that there are nearly no thematic arcs doesn't help matters. It all boils down to a relatively simple question- what is this movie about? If there's one clear, sharp contrast between this movie and Gone Girl, it lies in this area. Fincher's masterpiece was very obviously about a lot of things. Mass media culture, the sensationalizing of true crime stories, the inherent distrust between husband and wife, and on top of all of that, it was a dissection of one of the greatest sociopaths the big screen has ever seen. If The Girl on the Train is about anything, I'm really not sure. Is it about alcoholism? Not exactly, since it gives up on that idea about halfway through. Is it a tale of suburban discontent? Well, not based on what's on the screen. Is it about how we create lies to avoid the truth? Nope. All of these half-baked themes are thrown around at various times, but in the end, it's a lot of sound and fury signifying nothing. It's vapid, tedious, and pointless.

If there's one saving grace to The Girl on the Train, it lies with the actors, who deliver a range of solid performances in a shaky film. As previously mentioned, Blunt is terrific, shifting between moods and personalities with ease. I was equally impressed by Haley Bennett, the magnetic young actress who has been appearing everywhere recently. Bennett has a unique ability to convey pain and emotion with only her face, and it shines through in each and every scene in this film. I still think her character arc is superfluous to the narrative at times, but Bennett almost saves the day. Rebecca Ferguson broke onto the scene last year with Mission: Impossible- Rogue Nation, and she continues to prove that she's a star. She's sympathetic, likable, and suppressing quite a bit of rage as Anna, the perfect suburbanite. The men in the cast are less impressive- Justin Theroux is pretty one-note, Edgar Ramirez is totally wasted, and Luke Evans isn't given much to do either.

The Girl on the Train should have been a Hitchcockian thriller with an erotic bite, a violent, sexually-tinged mystery movie that keeps you guessing until the final frame. Instead, it's a one-note, shallow exercise in tedium, a film that simply has no idea what it wants to be. No amount of technical slickness can keep The Girl on the Train from being profoundly uninteresting, and while I don't necessarily hate this film, the disappointment is monumental. Scatterbrained, haphazardly plotted, and even unintentionally funny at times, this chaotic thriller misses by a mile.

THE FINAL GRADE:  C-                                             (5.2/10)

Image Credits: Indiewire, Screen Rant, IMDB

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