Courtney Howard is a LAFCA, OFCS and AWFJ member, as well as a Rotten Tomatometer-approved film critic. Her work has been published on Variety, She Knows and Awards Circuit.
Courtney Howard // Film Critic
The adult thriller genre typically flourishes in print, but lately it’s been a dying breed on screen. We get maybe one or two a year – enough to make us believe they could come roaring back – only to fade quietly again into the background. Then GONE GIRL came around and changed everything.
Not only were publishers in a frenzy to find the next one, audiences in both mediums (books and cinema) clamored for more. Adapted from author Paula Hawkins’ best-selling novel that swept the nation, THE GIRL ON THE TRAIN is the next in line to take the throne. While it doesn’t exactly reach the heights of its frequently compared predecessor (who could ever hold a candle to Fincher and Flynn?!), director Tate Taylor’s film is shocking, gripping and intense, excelling in similar ways to WHAT LIES BENEATH and DECEIVED. Even if you read the book, it still keeps you guessing until the very end.
Rachel Watson (Emily Blunt, who brings her A-game) has been dealing very poorly with the fallout from her two-year-old divorce. She takes the train to flee from her life’s sloppiness, escaping into a world free from real-world loneliness and sorrow. But she doesn’t get lost in the internet ‘rear windows’ of Facebook, Twitter or Instagram. She peers through the train car windows, gulping vodka disguised in a reusable water bottle, fantasizing about “perfect couple” Scott and Megan (played by Luke Evans and Haley Bennett). The pair are strangers who live a few doors down from her old residence, which is occupied by ex-hubby Tom (Justin Theroux), new wife Anna (Rebecca Ferguson) and their baby Evie. However, Rachel’s fragile world comes crashing in when she spots the perfect wife cheating. Rage and pain overflow, rendering her helpless in the face of adultery. Then this woman goes missing and that’s when things really get interesting.
On a basic narrative level, Hitchcock’s fingerprints are all over this – from the super obvious REAR WINDOW comparison and utilization of trains, mistaken identity and a double (e.g. Megan and Anna being Rachel’s opposites), to the super subtle with VERTIGO (Rachel chasing an enigma of a woman). There’s also a charming sociopath (I won’t say who), transference of guilt (as told through Megan’s shrink sessions with Dr. Kamal Abdic, played by Edgar Ramírez) and stereotypical icy Hitchcock blonde (with Ferguson filling that role). Hawkins’ source material, as well as screenwriter Erin Cressida Wilson’s adaptation, also pulls story threads from director George Cukor’s GASLIGHT. Though I would’ve liked a more auteur-influenced visual approach to the way Taylor (THE HELP) frames and occasionally pieces together his shots, there are a small handful of montages that are compelling (like when Rachel wakes up bruised and bloodied).
Despite a lack of genuinely cinematic visuals, a disenchanting deus ex-machina and problematic male characters, there’s still a lot to be valued. Much of the credit goes to Blunt’s stellar, captivating performance and Wilson’s strong scripting. She’s almost the same Rachel as in Hawkins’ book; however, Blunt manifests her into an original. Instead of being frumpy and dowdy, Blunt highlights the character’s brokenness, loneliness, fragility and longing over physical attributes. With small tweaks to the book’s bone structure, Wilson builds in layers that weren’t previously there. The connective tissue between the three women is much more evident. Switching from the sweltering, stifling heat of summer to the crisp chill of the fall-winter transition (echoing Rachel’s shift) is brilliant as it augments atmosphere and tone. Rachel is no longer blatant about drinking on the commuter train, but rather has to hide it. She is also made into a stronger character by denying herself love, whereas in the book she succumbs. Also, Wilson trims the fat of the book in perfect ways. We don’t need extra fluff with the red-haired red herring (Darren Goldstein) and more with Rachel’s best friend (Laura Prepon). Gone are superfluous details and added are stronger themes and character complexities. And lest I let it go unsaid, it’s terrific that this is a female-forward film that highlights three women as dynamic human beings – flaws and all.
Even though it’s not perfect, and borrows heavily from the master of suspense, THE GIRL ON THE TRAIN serves as a satisfying, entertaining adaptation.
THE GIRL ON THE TRAIN opens on Friday, Oct. 7.