Soapy Melodrama Abounds in the Deliciously Fun Girl on the Train


Emily Blunt and Haley Bennett shine in the melodramatic and thrilling adaptation of Paula Hawkins’ popular novel The Girl on the Train

In the interest of full disclosure, I hate Paula Hawkins novel The Girl on the Train. It lacks the nuance, mysterious intrigue, and complicated characters of Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl (a novel it lovingly rips-off). I was skeptical when Hollywood greenlight an adaptation, and that skepticism lasted right until the opening credits. Somehow, Hawkins soapy tale of judgmental women and their issues translates better on-screen than the written page. Though never devolving into the levels of camp, The Girl on the Train presents itself as Gone Girl’s trashier, but funner sister.

Rachel (Emily Blunt) spends her time riding the train into Manhattan, where she drinks herself into oblivion as a means of coping with her divorce. Her only joy comes from imagining the life of a beautiful woman she sees through the train windows everyday. When the woman goes missing, Rachel becomes involved in solving the case, only to wonder if she’s a suspect herself.

Director Tate Taylor is the adaptation man, this being his second after The Help. He retains the novel’s blocky narrative fracturing, giving us Rachel’s perspective before jumping to our other main character, Megan (Haley Bennett) and back. This is a technique that fails to do anything other than confuse the audience, but it’s the only way the story works short of mashing things to fit chronologically. Though there aren’t as many characters here as in The Help, Taylor gives the brunt of the time to the two characters who matter: Rachel, the titular “girl on the train” and Megan.

Image courtesy of Universal Pictures

The two women work as the perfect embodiment of the ideal and reality. Erin Cressida Wilson’s script is rife with interesting promise about things that affect women today. Unlike Gone Girl, there’s a decidedly female view attached to everything, one that Hawkins failed to achieve in the novel. Despite her good looks, husband and home, Megan finds herself at sea, unable to find comfort in housewifery. She goes to the gym and finds women staring her down, judging her.

Megan is the the manic pixie dream girl and actress Haley Bennett’s disaffected attitude toward everything works. Her backstory negates much of the character’s previous confidence, but Bennett somehow infuses her character with both cool girl coldness and melancholy betrayal. Her scenes opposite Anna (played by a dead-eyed Rebecca Ferguson) are some of the best of the film, because Megan almost takes a joy out of destroying Anna’s Barbie world.

Several moments in the film regard how women judge other women, particularly in the case of motherhood. Take the character of Anna, who is sadly still just as poorly written as in the novel. Megan, we are shown, doesn’t fit in with the town because “it’s a…baby factory.” The antipathy makes Anna’s constant cooing at her child, and declarations that there’s no job more important than motherhood, annoying. (As someone who’s met their fair share of baby obsessives, this is spot-on.) Wilson looks at how women are guilted whether they have children or not. There’s also a sly look at the reasons men cheat and how women can’t ever truly succeed.

The true tour de force performance comes from Emily Blunt. Naturally, because this is Hollywood, Rachel gets an upgrade from the overweight frump she is in the novel. Blunt, in no makeup, plays a person mired in the depths of alcoholism so well I got chills. Her chronic apologies, stumbling and slurring don’t come off like an imitation but an ingrained personality trait. She runs the gamut of fun drunk – finding a new friend at the bar to scream into her cell phone with her – to sitting the middle of the street like a homeless person. Close-ups emphasize her desire for connection and her inability to process the fact that she could be “the girl I once was” again.

The script never rises above being a take on those 1940s melodramas, like A Letter to Three Wives…albeit with some more sex. Wilson wrote the script for Secretary, so I anticipated sex, but despite the advertising, it turns out it’s all rather tame. Still, I bought Girl on the Train more as a film than a novel. Maybe it’s my appreciation for films like Valley of the Dolls or Peyton Place. The ending, admittedly is still nothing short of terrible, but it plays better on-screen. Some won’t appreciate the villain’s overblown antics that threaten to veer into something from American Psycho, but I did.

Taylor and crew give us horrible people doing horrible things, with a ticky-tacky happy ending ripped straight out of the “naughty books” of the 1950s. Had the film pushed that extra mile – been campier, sexier, cleverer – it could please more comers, but it works in spite of itself.

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The story isn’t as tightly wound as Gone Girl and a finite group of characters easily solve the ending around the hour mark. Regardless, Blunt’s drunken antics, Bennett’s cold gaze and Ferguson’s bland fairy-tale happiness makes The Girl on the Train a fun film you can drink wine with and enjoy.