It certainly won’t work to The Girl on the Train’s advantage to be compared to David Fincher’s Gone Girl but the proximity of the two properties – both feature strong female leads, are based on best selling novels and center on soapy surburian murder mysteries – make such comparisons as unavoidable as they may be unfavorable for director Tate Taylor.
There’s not much distinguishable in the way of style from Taylor, director of Oscar contender The Help and James Brown biopic Get on Up. He applies a painstaking fisheye lens as a kind of visual handicap to infer to the audience when our protagonist – a noted lush – is on one. There’s a kind of gimmicky, almost commercial quality to the way he disorients the image that speaks to his relative passivity and inexperience as a visual storyteller.
In his previous efforts, characters and language drove the action where The Girl on the Train demands strong imagery to match its hazy jigsaw narrative qualities. Tate’s filmmaking can be obvious and redundant, capitalizing on movie thriller methodology’s past. If you juxtapose the rich visual language Fincher captured with Gone Girl – haunting symmetry, stark visual contract, a vibrant color template – to the oblique and casual nature of Taylor’s cinematic palette, there quite simply isn’t much to compare.
One of the things The Girl on the Train can boast is lead Emily Blunt as a longstanding inebriate who comes enrapt in a local murder. Blunt has displayed massive range – with roles spanning from musical comedies to badass heroine bitches – but as Rachel, she offers one of her most revealing showcases yet. Blunt navigates the tricky waters of emotional abuse and alcoholism in surefire manner, giving a performance that outmatches the movie it’s trapped within at every turn.
Looking worse for wear as a drunken desperado booze hound, Blunt’s Rachel is the titular girl on the train. Riding to and fro the Big Apple on the daily, slurping out of a sports bottle not too tactfully filled with plastic bottle vodka, Rachel is a mess. Her eyes bloodshot, her business attire ruffled. The one bright spot – if you can call it that – in her oh-so-depressing days is playing I Spy on the unsuspecting suburbanites along her commute. One of those suburbanites is ex-husband Tom (Justin Theroux) and new wife Anna (Rebecca Ferguson) who in the past have been the subject of her drunken tirades.
These days, Rachel’s sleep-deprived and booze-buggered eyes are more affixed on Megan (Haley Bennett) and Scott (Luke Evans), a well-to-do couple who live just two houses down the lane. She’s prescribed to them a perfect little life in their perfect little house, doodling their fairy tale romance in borderline horrific pencil sketches. One day, the facade crumbles when she catches Megan in a an extramarital tryst, wrapped in the arms of bearded man. Soon after, she goes missing. Rachel’s involvement is suspect and, unable to trust her own brain after one too many bottles of firewater, even she is not sure her level of involvement.
Working from a script courtesy of Erin Cressida Wilson (Secretary, Men, Women & Children), Taylor’s adaptation of Paula Hawkins’ novel, which enjoyed a 13-week streak atop the New York Best Seller List, has trouble honing in on the most important aspects of what make the film work and trimming the fat where needed. Characters filter in and out, crude and cursory (Evans’ character most of all), and too many are little more than red herrings meant to throw us from the scent. This may work if the mysterious nature of the piece were more, for lack of a more precise term, mysterious. As is, I had it figured out little more than halfway through.
So to invest so much of the audience’s time trying to throw us off the proverbial tracks just results in its own eventual derailing. That’s not to say that there aren’t elements of The Girl on the Train that shine. As already covered, Blunt is exemplary. Contributing a performance two pay grades above the material, she reaches deep and reveals a bold and discomforting display of emotional violence that pulls no punches and is convincing at every jagged turn.
When Taylor is able to tap into the sudsy, campy qualities of The Girl on the Train, he hits his stride. There’s a finisher moment in the tail end of the film that had the audience erupt in laughter and it’s this snide, gleeful exuberance that the rest of the feature is lacking. That being the case, it doesn’t quite fit the self-serious tone Taylor attempts to nurture but it’s a spark of something different – something in distinct opposition to the hard edges of Gone Girl – that could have ignited within The Girl on the Train purpose anew. Alas, it’s but a bright spot in an otherwise fuzzy picture that’s often unable balance its questionable gender politics with its thrilling intents. .
CONCLUSION: Soapy psychosexual thriller ‘The Girl on the Train’ applies Emily Blunt’s tremendous talents to tell a fairly rote murder mystery melodrama. Director Tate Taylor struggles to apply visual style but manages to hit alarming physical high points and address tender themes of domestic abuse with a fittingly delicate touch.