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Movie Curiosities: The Girl on the Train

I’ve read “The Da Vinci Code”, and seen the film adaptation. I’ve read “Angels and Demons” and “Digital Fortress”. That’s as much Dan Brown as I ever want to sit through, and Inferno looks exactly like a piece of crap that got dumped while everyone’s out at Halloween parties, before Doctor Strange comes along to wipe it off the map. So now it’s time to do some catching up.

Here we are at last to look at The Girl on the Train, an intriguing little thriller with a solid cast. Yet the film came out to middling reviews. What went wrong?

To start with, this is an erotic thriller. The film tries to bill itself as a nailbiting mystery, but let’s cut the shit. This is a story that prominently features marital infidelities, various sexual affairs, and a whole lotta bloody murder. It’s an erotic thriller, and there’s no way to half-ass that, but that’s exactly what the filmmakers try and do.

This is all decidedly R-rated subject matter, and I had to check after the fact to make sure it wasn’t rated PG-13. All of the more mature stuff is presented in a wishy-washy manner that’s somewhere in between PG-13 and R. Gone Girl and 50 Shades of Grey (for all their faults) knew enough to embrace the R rating, and you’d think a movie designed to ride those coattails would know enough to do likewise. Damn shame.

The filmmakers evidently decided to compensate for this by making everything as overly dramatic as possible. Between the blurry slo-mo shaky-cam shots, the blunt dialogue, the broad characters, and the elegiac voice-overs, it’s like the filmmakers opened by turning up the melodrama to eleven and pulling off the knob. Thus we’re left with a movie that’s clearly a work of trashy smut, but it’s not as smart as Gone Girl and it doesn’t have the “guilty pleasure” appeal of 50 Shades.

That said, the filmmakers do weave in a few themes about alcoholism, emotional abuse, and the societal pressures involving motherhood. All of these are important issues that deserve serious discussion, especially those first two. But I wonder if exploring alcoholism and spousal abuse by way of a disposable and brainless erotic thriller might actually do more harm than good.

So what’s the story? Buckle up, folks.

The plot revolves around three women. Rachel (Emily Blunt) is a raging alcoholic who’s lost her job, her husband, her house, and practically everything else to her crippling addiction. Anna (Rebecca Ferguson) is the woman who married Rachel’s ex-husband (Tom, played by Justin Theroux) after the two of them slept around behind Rachel’s back. They’re both now living with their daughter in the house that Tom had bought with Rachel. Last but not least is Megan (Haley Bennett), neighbor to Anna and nanny to Anna’s daughter. Anna is married to Scott (Luke Evans) and she’s fucking her psychiatrist (Abdic, played by Edgar Ramirez) on the side.

Got all that?

Anyway, Rachel spends her time and her alimony payments taking the train to and from New York twice a day. And the train passes right by her old house. So she gets to watch Anna’s house and stew over her ex-husband, his old mistress, things that might have been, how things are now, etc. And at the same time, she watches Megan’s house a few doors over, fantasizing about the perfect life this woman must have and wishing she could trade places.

Then Rachel discovers Megan’s affair. And then Megan goes missing. And Rachel blacked out for the several hours when witnesses placed her in the area where Megan was last seen. Naturally, Rachel feels a compulsive need to help Megan and make herself feel useful, even despite the multitude of reasons why nobody — even Rachel herself! — should trust her.

Just to make it absolutely clear, there is barely a single likeable character in this bunch. Everyone is an asshole and an idiot to some degree. There isn’t a single character who doesn’t engage in abusive alcoholism, illicit sexual affairs, or spiteful backstabbing.

So it’s a mercy that these characters are played by such a strong cast. For the most part.

Emily Blunt is outstanding as the de facto protagonist. Rachel does some pretty stupid and awful things, but Blunt’s performance is such that it’s hard to hate her. Because Blunt leans HARD into just how broken-down and pathetic this character is. Rachel isn’t just a hot mess — she’s a two-story compost heap on fire. She is so sad and she’s clearly in so much pain through every waking moment that I simply couldn’t help feeling sorry for her. Incredibly well done.

Luke Evans is easily the film’s other big MVP. Here’s an actor who can go from Prince Charming to the Antichrist on a dime, and he’s compelling to watch from start to finish. Justin Theroux turns in some solid work as well, proving that he’s got some good dramatic chops to go with his proven skills as a comedian. Kudos are also due to Rebecca Ferguson, who shows incredible range with her character and holds the screen beautifully.

Elsewhere, Laura Prepon and Lisa Kudrow both appear for extended cameos, just enough to ask why the filmmakers bothered casting them for such small roles. Allison Janney plays a detective, and she’s just as sadly under-utilized.

The weak links in the cast are definitely Edgar Ramirez and Haley Bennett. Not that Edgar Ramirez does a particularly bad job, he just doesn’t build a performance nearly as memorable or compelling as his castmates. As for Haley Bennett… *heavy sigh*

This has been a huge breakout year for Haley Bennett, and it’s her third big film this year after Hardcore Henry and The Magnificent Seven (2016). And for all of that, she’s barely left any kind of impression aside from “the poor man’s Jennifer Lawrence.” Yes, she has the same kind of twenty-something everywoman look that helped make Lawrence such a star, and it’s served Bennett well. But she hasn’t shown an ounce of the intelligence, screen presence, intensity, or charm that made Lawrence an A-lister.

With regards to Megan, she’s supposed to be an enigmatic beauty that everyone’s obsessed with, but she takes up such a crucial role in the plot that we need to get a feel for who she is. That’s a very tricky balance to achieve, and I’ve seen better actresses than Bennett fail at it. So of course she fails to leave any kind of impression or establish any kind of identity for Megan because she never had a prayer.

The Girl on a Train has a few clever moments and some wonderful twists, but it’s not smart enough to work as a strong mystery and it’s not bold enough to work as satisfying smut. The broad and bastardly characters are redeemed only by the actors playing them, which makes the stronger leads all the more captivating to watch while the weaker ones are left to flounder.

What we’re ultimately left with is a disposable bore that doesn’t do any one thing particularly well enough to stand out. Aside from Emily Blunt and maybe Luke Evans, there’s nothing here to recommend.

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