The Girl on the Train is a nice little surprise of a movie. It’s the first truly engaging mystery thriller that I’ve seen since 2014’s Gone Girl, with which it shares a kind of thematic kinship. It also offers something of a tour-de-force performance from English actress Emily Blunt, who does an amazing job as the film’s troubled, emotionally complex protagonist.
Blunt plays Rachel Watson, a woman who struggles with great depression and alcoholism due to a failed marriage. Every day, she rides the train, often quite inebriated, looking out the window and dreaming about the lives of the people that she sees. One evening, in an emotional fury, Rachel blacks out from drinking; she wakes up the next morning covered in blood, unable to remember the previous night. She learns that a young woman — one of the people she used to watch from the train — is missing, and she is currently a suspect. Now Rachel must try to piece together what happened that night, in the process determining whether she is innocent or culpable in the matter.
I won’t spoil more than that in terms of specific plot points. As with any good mystery, the less you know going in, the more fun it is to watch it unfold on screen. The movie takes full advantage of playing with the assumptions that both we — the audience — make as well as those the characters themselves make and then turning those assumptions on their heads. Indeed, the tag line of this film could just as easily have been, “What you think you see can hurt you,” given how much that concept is hardwired into the narrative. This was a rare example of a picture that I couldn’t predict. Half-way through, I couldn’t tell what the ending would be, and I was truly surprised with the directions that it took. To me, that’s the sign of a great mystery thriller; when we’re truly as lost as the people trying to solve the mystery, the filmmakers have done their job. I will point out that this movie is rated R for a reason; some instances of imagery, themes, and language are quite intense, but they never come across as exploitative. Rather they serve the story being told.
As I said, Blunt is terrific in this picture. She really does sell the emotional torment of Rachel, and she is so convincing when drunk I almost wonder if she actually did drink when playing certain scenes. Rachel also narrates to the audience for much of the movie, and, again, Blunt does an excellent job of letting us into her psyche. I really enjoyed how much I was able to empathize with her and understand her decisions, and it definitely helps in becoming more involved in the story. To be blunt (pun intended), Blunt really makes this movie work emotionally; and I hope she gets the proper recognition for that.
That’s not say that the other actors and actresses in the movie don’t do their job. On the contrary, there are many good performances in the picture. These include Justin Theroux as Tom, Rachel’s ex-husband, and Rebecca Ferguson as Anna, his new wife; their interactions with Rachel are complicated, to say the least. Then there’s Haley Bennett* as Megan Hipwell, the young woman who has gone missing. We see her mostly in flashbacks, where we learn about the troubled life she leads as well as some questionable behavior she participates in; Bennett walks the appropriate line here with Megan, allowing us to feel sorry for her while still recognizing her culpability. Welsh actor Luke Evans plays Megan’s frustrated husband. His character pops in and out of the story — I honestly would have liked to have seen more of him on screen — but he is enjoyable when present. Evans also gives a descent American accent in this picture, something not all British people can pull off. Oddly enough, the filmmakers didn’t even try to hide Blunt’s accent, despite not giving any reason why she would have one in the film.
Additionally, as a fan of older television programs, I’d like to point out that three actresses from hit shows that premiered in the 90s appear in supporting roles in the picture. They are Allison Janney* (The West Wing), Lisa Kudrow (Friends), and Laura Prepon (That ’70s Show). Kudrow and Prepon are respectable here, but they don’t get too much to do. Janney, though, really shines as a detective working on the case of Megan’s disappearance. She carries a nice sense of authority when on screen and, like Evans, I wish she had been featured a bit more prominently.
To sum up, The Girl on the Train is a good mystery with great characters that takes its audience seriously; and that really is enough to recommend it. I honestly can’t levy any real criticisms against it that don’t boil down to minor, nit-picking preferences, which is really rare for me. Apart from Kubo and the Two Strings, I’d say this is the movie I’ve most enjoyed seeing so far this year. And if you have the time you might just enjoy it too.
*In a case of look-alikes, Haley Bennett has an uncanny resemblance to actress Jennifer Lawrence. Somebody should really put those two in a movie together as sisters.
*In another case of look-alikes, Allison Janney has an uncanny resemblance to actress Katey Sagal. Maybe they should do a movie where they’re sisters as well.