Blunt shines, ‘Girl on Train’ falters

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“The Girl on the Train” is good. It comes recommended. But I left it thinking about how much better it could have been.

The film follows Rachel Watson (Emily Blunt), who sketches during her daily train commute to New York City. Over the course of the first few minutes, Watson slowly reveals the truth about herself — first, that she’s become obsessed with a couple, Megan and Scott Hipwell (Haley Bennett and Luke Evans), whom she can see every day as the train passes. Then, that the Hipwells live three doors down from her former home, where her ex-husband and his mistress-turned-wife, Tom and Anna Watson (Justin Theroux and Rebecca Ferguson), raise their child. Finally, Rachel Watson reveals her crippling, embarrassing alcoholism.

One night while blackout drunk — she’s almost perpetually blackout drunk — Watson returns to her old neighborhood to give Anna a piece of her mind. That night, Megan Hipwell goes missing. Watson becomes a primary suspect, but also wants to help with the case.
More than anything, “The Girl on the Train” is about perspective, and most of the composition and editing efforts go toward capturing perspective, be it Megan’s or Rachel’ or Anna’s. The story unfolds from their three perspectives — primarily Rachel’s and Megan’s, which starts six months prior and leads up to her disappearance.

Something off about this movie is how it deals with Rachel Watson, its primary protagonist and the only one who actually narrates. Most uses of an Unreliable Narrator begin with a lead character who seems trustworthy, but who presents a story with such escalating madness and confusion that the audience must begin to doubt her point of view. Think “Black Swan” or “Fight Club.”

Conversely, “The Girl on the Train” almost immediately establishes its lead as a stalker with absolutely no control over her alcohol consumption and a tenuous grip on reality. It sacrifices the chance at a big reveal to really throw its audience for a loop but gains a sense of unease that lasts the full runtime.

As the movie jumps between perspectives, it jumps back and forth in time and between reality and Watson’s drunken fantasies, and many scenes are intentionally unlabeled. Viewers can only be certain about half the time when what they’re seeing takes place in the narrative or if it even happened at all. As one long sequence, the movie teeters on the edge of feeling meticulously crafted and feeling like utter gibberish. It’s kind of compelling to watch in that way.

The movie’s unnerving dreamlike quality perfectly compliments its subject matter’s sultry sexiness. “The Girl on the Train” is about excusable voyeurism, and it’s got that uncertain feeling that hearkens back to something like “Blue Velvet” or even “Rear Window.” There’s a sense that you need to find out what happened, but the knowledge that it’s just an excuse to get closer to this sexy, faraway couple and learn their secrets.

It’s an endearing movie, but it ultimately fails for a couple of reasons. First, the central mystery is way, way too easy to figure out, and actually spoiled in the movie’s trailer.

Second, it doesn’t really explore all the great themes at its disposal. Most of its characters clearly have a lot of depth to them and good parts and bad parts to their personalities, but only a couple are explored in detail. Similarly, motifs of alcohol, the train and fertility aren’t really plumbed for potential symbolic uses.

In the end, the movie simply lionizes one character and demonizes another, and that’s a bit disappointing, especially given that he’s demonized for something other characters participated in. The movie is less interesting than it could have been, and that’s sad.

For the full review and much, much more, head over to Leopold Knopp’s blog at reelentropy.com.