The best thrillers concern themselves with the lives of women: either women fighting some force of evil—whether man, beast, machine, or self—like Audrey Hepburn in Charade (and Wait Until Dark) or Sigourney Weaver in the Alien movies; or women who embrace evil with reverie, like Barbara Stanwyck in Double Indemnity or the character of Eve Harrington (played by Anne Baxter) in All About Eve (not a true thriller, but in many ways, a psychologically chilling movie about a sociopath who schemes her way to power and fame). Agency is the key, whether it’s used for good or for ill, because agency makes these characters compelling, makes us root for them whether they’re slaying vampires or breaking hearts or betraying someone close to them. Why is it then that the new thriller The Girl on the Train, which is based on the hugely popular novel by Paula Hawkins, cooks up such drab, powerless women and then marinates in their own misery for two hours?
It’s hard to believe that in 2016 we could get stuck with such an anti-feminist thriller about three women who are too obsessed with the men they’re married to—or divorced from, or sleeping with—to see anything of value in themselves. I realize that there are women in real life who struggle with these feelings of worthlessness, women whose lives and desires and ambitions orbit their men like little moons, with no other identity than “wife” to give them meaning. But if real life is so confining and so disempowering for so many women (undoubtedly the largest audience for this book/movie), surely thrillers about women have an even more urgent task to tell stories that empower women, that give actresses juicy, daring, complex characters, and not just depict mopey put-upon, soulless bodies that function dually as sex toys and baby ovens. Because The Girl on the Train essentially fetishizes women as sex objects and mommies. There’s nothing else to see here.
Emily Blunt plays the main character, Rachel, a woman so wrecked by her divorce from Tom (Justin Theroux) that she rides the train every morning and night, sipping vodka in a water bottle, so that she can pass by the house where she used to live, the house where he lives still, with his new wife (the one he had the affair with) and their baby. Rachel couldn’t conceive, and this “failure” has turned her into a drunk. Through flashbacks, we see that Rachel is at times a violent drunk, smashing mirrors with golf clubs, or throwing a tray of deviled eggs across a room at a party. Rachel, we’re told, is a mess, and this drove Tom to infidelity with Anna (Rebecca Ferguson).
In fact, Rachel is such a mess that she fantasizes about another couple on the same street (she's never met them), catching faint glimmers of their apparently hot romance as the train rolls by. So when she spies the woman making out with another man—on their back balcony—she’s thrown into despair. How could this woman (whose name is Megan) jeopardize what Rachel assumes is the ideal marriage?* Then Megan (Haley Bennett) goes missing, and her disappearance becomes a new obsession for Rachel, since stalking Tom and his new family is starting to get a little humdrum. Megan, incidentally, was Tom and Anna’s nanny. Megan’s husband Scott (Luke Evans), was hoping that the job would give Megan baby fever, but it did not. In one flashback, Megan quits the nannying position, and she can barely contain her contempt as Anna complains, “I have so much work to do going to the farmer’s market and picking out the right fruits for my baby.” Is this line meant to be a funny dig at self-involved upper-middle-class housewives, or does someone (either Hawkins or the screenwriter, Erin Cressida Wilson) think that schlepping for fruit at a farmer’s market takes hours and hours? It’s hard to say, because director Tate Taylor lets the remark fall flat. I laughed, but most of the other people in the theater did not, so who knows what the intention was.
But even if that line was intended as comic relief, it’s the one solitary intentional joke in the movie. There’s no humor here, just a very particular kind of white upper-class misery, the kind that Charles Dickens exposed in many novels so that poor people could see just how difficult life is for the rich; that way maybe they’d be grateful for what they have (or, don’t have).
Dripping sarcasm aside, The Girl on the Train is surprisingly Victorian in its treatment of women who reject their traditional roles. (Although it’s not Victorian in other ways: Victorian thrillers—like The Woman in White or Lady Audley’s Secret or Dracula—never let serious matters stand in the way of showing their audience a good time.) Megan, the girl who doesn’t want to be a mommy (flashbacks reveal that she “accidentally” drowned her own infant years ago), is a self-described “whore” who gets murdered. The other two women in the movie desperately want to be wives and mothers, and will do anything (even if it means marrying a complete scumbag) to accomplish this task. So they get to live.
The Girl on the Train owes quite a bit to Rebecca, the terrific Daphne du Maurier gothic, which Alfred Hitchcock adapted for the screen in 1940. But unlike Megan, Rebecca is a fascinating character, despite the fact that she’s never actually present in the story, because she’s already dead. Du Maurier’s punishment of a transgressive woman is no less disturbing, but it’s far more entertaining because we have grown to deplore Rebecca, who’s a real cad, sleeping around with various men despite being married to the richest elitist in Cornwall and living in his great big house by the sea. People idolize Rebecca, because she puts up a great front, while secretly treating her husband's prestigious family name like a rag. But all of this is the backstory, because Rebecca’s widowed husband, supposedly heartbroken over her death, has remarried, to a gauche 20-year-old girl with no name (du Maurier couldn’t think one up), and this girl begins to be oppressed by (and obsessed with) Rebecca.
The Girl on the Train functions much like a gothic thriller, but it lacks verve and excitement and color. There’s no vitality or visual trickery. There’s hardly anything visually interesting at all, save a moment where the film shows us multiple points-of-view that offer conflicting information. And the whole movie hinges on the fact that Rachel can’t remember an encounter with Megan (because she blacked out during it) on the night Megan was murdered. Rachel’s amnesia then becomes a tired device that strings us along this extended Law and Order episode. And the biggest revelations in The Girl on the Train are nowhere near as exciting as they purport to be. This mopey thriller is drab and gloomy from start to finish.
With Edgar Ramirez (as Megan’s hunky headshrinker), Allison Janney (as a homicide detective), and Lisa Kudrow.
*Edited for clarification/accuracy.
*Edited for clarification/accuracy.