Review: The Girl on the Train is Competent but Derivative

By Christopher Ortiz · October 21, 2016

Invoking comparisons can be a tricky thing – particularly when it comes to a film’s marketing. On the one hand, selling a film by recalling similar material can be incredibly effective when it comes to attracting audiences – but when the comparison being invoked is also superlative, you risk sullying a film’s word of mouth. The Girl on the Train suffers from such comparisons in style, concept, casting and even release date to 2014’s Gone Girl – a bigger, better film in every way. And yet such comparisons don’t offer a full picture of what The Girl on the Train does well – and not so well. Taken on its own merits, this is a dark and engaging mystery film, featuring compelling performances from an A-list cast, that suffers from identity issues and a rushed, genre-confused final act.

Most of the film, though, is engaging enough to warrant a viewing if only for the outstanding level of immersion Emily Blunt achieves in her role as the alcoholic, emotionally-unstable Rachel Watson. She is a distraught woman reeling from her divorce from Tom Watson (Justin Theroux) who is now re-married and has a baby with Anna (Rebecca Ferguson). This has her living like a zombie, commuting on a train in the same exact seat every day that passes by the home she once shared with Tom, and it’s through her performance that the film attempts to meaningfully comment on the tragic consequences of addiction and emotional abuse.

Then again, the real reason she’s glued to the seat is because of Megan (Haley Bennett) – their neighbor two houses down – who, to Rachel, seems perfectly happy: married, beautiful, and alluring in her mystique. This reminds Rachel of the joy of her former life, before her descent into her own personal demons, which soon leads to several invasions of privacy involving Tom and Anna’s new life.

Megan, meanwhile, has obvious shades of “Amazing Amy” from Gone Girl that are difficult to ignore. Like Amy, she’s written in the vain of an overused cliché: broken but beautiful. She’s blonde, bored by her suburban life, yet kept in place by the dependance of those around her. The perfect life Rachel thinks she sees is far from the truth. Fortunately, Haley Bennett plays her convincingly and director Tate Taylor doesn’t overstay her welcome due to the other thankfully nuanced characters that demand screen time. Megan becomes more and more believable as the film progresses, so much so that when she goes missing, the momentum of the film picks up naturally.

One of Girl on the Train’s strengths is in its balance between reality and the tidbits of memories Rachel tries to piece together. With her heavy drinking and a covered-up mystery, everyone, including Detective Riley (West Wing’s Allison Janney), finds her difficult to believe when she offers information regarding Megan – glimpsed from the train. The fast-paced editing, dark, grey tones, and the consistently heavy, melancholic pace add to the the film’s suspense by compelling us to learn more about Rachel’s character through our sympathy for her.

But while it does offer an intriguing mystery, that same melancholic pace never really amplifies or declines, leaving the film feeling fairly stagnant – especially when the plot tries to move along the rhythms of a thriller. It’s best to see it as a dark mystery drama anchored well by its ensemble cast – and yet, even then, it runs out of ideas by the final act when shocking revelations are made in a rushed, misconceived climactic showdown.

After a final, emotional twist that sells the tragic consequences of Rachel’s demons, the film reduces itself to a melodramatic soap opera in which characters don’t act believably nor contribute to the film’s suspense. While the twists, acting and cinematography are alluring enough to make you care deeply for all involved, the final 15 minutes may change how you feel about the film as a whole.

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Neither this year’s Gone Girl nor this year’s best thriller, The Girl on the Train is still a competently-made dark mystery clearly influenced by David Fincher’s unique stylings. However, it’s this influence in and of itself that threatens to undo the strength of its own story – especially after the climactic showdown proves underwhelming.

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