Movie Review: The Girl on the Train

Mystery thriller brings a new sense of style to a routine story

The Girl on the Train
Directed by Tate Taylor
With Emily Blunt, Rebecca Ferguson, Haley Bennett, Justin Theroux, Luke Evans, Allison Janney, Édgar Ramírez, Lisa Kudrow

A woman rides a commuter train every day, wondering about the people in some of the houses along the tracks. But all is not what it seems. These aren't just random people. Slowly, details are revealed about her relationship to the people in the buildings she obsesses over. The Girl on the Train, directed by Tate Taylor from a best-selling novel by Paula Hawkins, turns into a jigsaw puzzle of a mystery.

When something happens to one of the people that Rachel Watson (played by Emily Blunt) had been obsessed with, police naturally become interested in her as a witness or a suspect. Unfortunately, she cannot help. She drinks vodka by the half-liter from a reusable plastic container and is prone to blackouts. She cannot even say for sure if she is innocent. But this doesn't stop her from trying to play amateur detective in the case, inserting herself into the lives other people.

The story is told largely from the point of view of Rachel, the title character. It is at first frustratingly fragmented, as Rachel doesn't remember key details and at times is misleading about her motives. She is unreliable at everything, even narration.

An unreliable narrator is a tricky literary device to use. One of Alfred Hitchcock's least successful films, Stage Fright starring Marlene Dietrich, used a narrator who flat out lied to the audience, and the audience was not impressed.

The concept, though, is much more successful in The Girl on the Train. Rachel has an excuse for being at times misleading. Due to her heavy drinking her own memories are at times wrong. Sometimes the audience sees several versions of events as she tries to sort out for herself what actually happened both in her failed marriage and on the particular night in question that has gotten the police involved.

Playing a drunken character for laughs is easy, but doing it as a serious role is much harder. Rachel is someone who tries to cover up her drinking, though not always successfully. Blunt creates a fairly credible character, and not a stumbling caricature. Her somewhat bumbling attempts at detective work are also credible, as people after a breakup often throw themselves obsessively into some project.

Her ex-husband Tom (Justin Theroux) and his new wife, Anna (Rebecca Ferguson), seem rightfully frightened of her due to some of her erratic behavior. Even the new nanny Megan Hipwell (Haley Bennett) is concerned about the strange phone calls and odd visits.

The character development is intentionally haphazard, as everyone is seen is a mix of the present time plus disjointed and perhaps false flashbacks of events. As the film progresses and the blanks are filled in, the mystery becomes more convoluted. What seemed obvious at the start no longer makes sense.

Director Tate Taylor is best-known for his film The Help, a slow-paced drama about life in the South in the US in the 1960s. His style is completely different here. He takes a fresh eye to classic thriller and mystery motifs, and managed to make The Girl on a Train not seem like ever other tale with a similar plot. Tate makes a few stylistic nods to Hitchcock, and even recreates a brief moment from The Lady Vanishes, with Rachel writing on the train window at the start.

Also notable is the score by Danny Elfman, which at times matches the disjointed nature of the film.

Fans of thrillers and mysteries are likely to want to catch The Girl on the Train. The story itself isn't very original but the telling of it makes it seem so.

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