While it took a few chapters to grab my attention and my heart, I must confess I couldn’t put down “The Girl on the Train” (the best-selling novel from Paula Hawkins) when I read it a few months ago. I knew it was about to be made into a film starring Emily Blunt and Justin Theroux, and if experience has taught me anything, it’s always better to read the book before seeing the film because I like to feel closer to the characters on the page first. When it comes to a psychological thriller such as this, the book provides certain insights into the characters’ psyches that a film simply cannot capture.
Thank goodness I followed my instincts. While it was fairly faithful to the source material, I thought the film version of The Girl on the Train derailed slightly in its overall tone and believability. That’s not to say I didn’t like it. Maybe it was trying too hard to be the next Gone Girl. Maybe it felt a little cheapened by becoming “Americanized.” It just didn’t transcend for me. (More on that later.)
First things first, many of you have probably heard that the setting was changed from book to film. I personally don’t think it mattered much that instead of taking place in the outskirts of London, we’re now presented with the Westchester district near NYC. The truth is it’s a story that can be told convincingly anywhere that features a large enough city with a prominent train or metro system for the plot to unfold around. Maybe NYC was cheaper for them to film it? Or maybe they just wanted to Americanize the story. Whatever the reason, I don’t think the locale was its biggest weakness.
For those of you who didn’t read the book, here’s the plot synopsis. Rachel Watson has never quite been the same since her ex-husband Tom left her for another woman named Anna. She can’t seem to hold down a steady job or manage to quit drinking in her bitter solitude. She partially blames Tom’s infidelity for her drinking and she partially blames herself because the drinking started well before the end of her marriage. How does that old adage go? She drinks to remember, and she drinks to forget. The truth is, I’ve known some of the Rachels of this world, and they’re far from pretty. The character is painfully recognizable for many, I’m sure.
Rachel commutes daily back and forth on a train while pretending to be going to work. I think she does this because she’s so far out of touch with her reality that it’s all she knows to do. She desperately wants a sense of normalcy to her life, although she knows she can’t ever go back to the way things were when she was a young newlywed in love and still blissful about the future. While on the train, she takes to the bottle more and more frequently as her only form of solace. She also becomes quite obsessed with what appears to be a perfect couple whom she has nicknamed Jason and Jess. She imagines all sorts of things about what their lives must be like because she often observes them in steamy embraces while out on their terrace as her train passes them by. She observes quite a bit, and yet she can’t quite see the full picture. Do any of us ever really?
One day she observes “Jess” in the arms of another man and this single act of betrayal stings her all the way down to her core because of her past. When the girl in question turns up missing soon thereafter, she becomes more and more obsessed with the missing persons investigation and decides to become involved. It gives her a reason to stop drinking and focus on something again. But it also puts her in a precarious position, as the police don’t take her testimonies seriously. She becomes acquainted with the missing girl’s husband and her lover, as she tries to unravel the truth. When you also tie in the fact that Rachel was spotted in the vicinity of the girl’s house on the night in question and she experienced a blackout that night and woke up covered in unexplainable bruises, cuts and blood the next day, you begin to understand the stakes involved. What does Rachel’s subconscious know?
When I first heard Emily Blunt was cast in the lead role of Rachel, I had mixed emotions. I love Emily Blunt, but is she capable of playing the emotional rawness of such an unreliable narrator? Is she too pretty to be a believable trainwreck of an alcoholic who’s prone to blackouts and generally shaming herself and all others around her? My verdict after watching it is: Emily Blunt is remarkable in the role. Just like the novel form of Rachel, she manages to make you feel a complex swirl of emotions regarding the precarious state of her mind and well-being, as well as her intentions and vulnerability as a rather sad, angry alcoholic ex-wife. If I had to pick one thing to praise about this film, it would most definitely be Emily Blunt, especially in that chilling bathroom scene.
How does the rest of the cast shake out? It’s a mixed bag. Justin Theroux is a convincing Tom (Rachel’s ex-husband) because we’re never quite sure if he’s more of a sinner or a saint. He toes that line well. Is he a sinner for cheating on his wife with Anna and conceiving a child with her and then moving her into the home that he and Rachel once shared? Or is he a saint for putting up with Rachel’s alcoholism during their marriage and in the aftermath, as she continues to harass him and his new family?
Then there’s Haley Bennett as Megan Hipwell (“Jess” – the girl who goes missing) and Luke Evans as her husband, Scott. I’m not quite sure what I think about these two. Haley’s version of Megan felt very bland to me. I’m not sure she brought enough emotional depth to the role, but then again, Megan really is a shallow, attention-seeking whore in the book so maybe there’s only so much one can do with the role. Luke does an acceptable turn as Scott, making you believe that he both loves and despises his wife deep down. Yet he never manages to make you feel any real empathy for his character.
Rebecca Ferguson brings a certain necessary chilliness to the role of Anna, while Laura Prepon does her best with the bit role of Rachel’s roommate Cathy (Cathy featured more prominently in the book). Allison Janney truly shines in the role of Detective Riley, while I found the casting choice of Edgar Ramirez a little bit disappointing for the role of Megan’s psychiatrist Dr. Kamal Abdic. If you ask me, that role should have gone to someone a little bit more ethnically diverse. He just didn’t look like what I pictured Dr. Abdic would look like in my head.
One of the biggest challenges of adapting this book to film is the fact that the book’s narration jumps around between the viewpoints of Rachel, Anna and Megan, and often, these viewpoints are not in chronological order. The film does a fair job with this, although at times, it feels a little like a train wreck that we just can’t take our eyes off of. While the novel captured my attention almost from the get-go, I felt like the film had some pacing issues. There are some really good parts and some really boring parts. And then there’s that whole plot twist at the end, which I won’t spoil for you. I found the ending of the novel predictable, but my boyfriend said it took him far longer than he cared to admit to figure it out in the film.
So, what’s the final verdict? The Girl on the Train is as flawed as the characters themselves I think. However, it has just enough haunting intrigue (much of which can be credited to the musical score from the ever-talented Danny Elfman) to keep you hanging on for the ride, no matter how much it derails from the novel. If you enjoyed the book, I think you may enjoy seeing it come to life on the big screen. Just don’t expect an apples-to-apples comparison or another Gone Girl. It is what it is.
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