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Non-Review Review: The Girl on the Train

What would you get if you tried to produce Gone Girl without David Fincher?

It is a tough question to answer, given Fincher’s style is an integral part of the film. It is impossible to divorce Gone Girl from Fincher’s steady cam shots and clinical framing. However, The Girl on the Train still makes a valiant attempt to answer. Whatever about the source material, the adaptation of The Girl on the Train is monomaniacally fixated upon that pulpy breakout psychological thriller, constructing another gaslighting murder investigation in desaturated terms to an electronic score that cannot help but evoke the work of Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross.

A pale reflection.

A pale reflection.

However, director Tate Taylor is no David Fincher. Fincher keenly understood the pulpy absurdity of his source material, playing into the ridiculousness of layered twists and double-bluffs that reimagined marriage as some sort of long-form psychological warfare. Taylor fundamentally misunderstands the tone of his film, pitching the forced coincidences and crazy revelations of The Girl on the Train as something to be taken entirely seriously. Gone is the irony that made Gone Girl so effective, replaced with an ill-advised earnestness that refuses to blink.

The problem is not that The Girl on the Train comes off the rails as the overly elaborate details of its storytelling world come into focus. The problem is that it doesn’t nearly enough momentum to reach its destination.

A trained observer.

A trained observer.

The Girl on the Train has all manner of interesting ideas. In fact, the film is bookended by a number of clever concepts that are completely forsaken during the obligatory “twisty mystery” segment of the movie. The opening moments of The Girl on the Train pitch it as a weird study in anomie, the simple fact that people spend significant portions of their lives on public transport; simultaneously surrounded by and isolated from their fellow man. This weird disconnect has informed any number of clever thrillers, and The Girl in the Train starts in this direction.

Rachel is an alcoholic who commutes on the train everyday, even though she has nowhere to go. Arriving in New York City, Rachel kills time at bars or drinking in public. The truth is that the destination matters little. Rachel’s life has become defined by these journeys, as if they give her life meaning and purpose. Looking through the window of the train, she peers into the lives of those who live along the train line. Alone with her own thoughts, Rachel begins to construct fanciful stories about who these people might be and what they might do.

Real(tor)ity check.

Real(tor)ity check.

These early sequences suggest a rather sombre mood. Rachel seems to always carry an empty bottle in her bag, and drinks from a travel cup filled with vodka. As played by Emily Blunt, there is a profound sadness to Rachel, a women with nowhere to go who has settled for shuffling back and forth in some grim parody of routine. The movie pretty quickly peels back the layers on Rachel, exploring her history as a blackout alcoholic and the disillusion of a marriage that has left her shattered. There is interesting material here.

Indeed, there are a whole host of interesting ideas tucked away at the climax of the story, tying into ideas of abuse that are very seldom explored in popular culture. The Girl on the Train concludes on a decidedly feminist note, in some ways playing as an over-the-top critique of the misogynistic mess that many critics seemed to find in Gone Girl. Of course, the suggestion that Gone Girl is some sort of blatant sexist screed is decidedly simplistic and superficial. In other words, precisely like The Girl on the Train.

Miss carriage of justice?

Miss carriage of justice?

The Girl on the Train hinges on crazy plot contrivance after crazy plot contrivance. Everybody in the story seems to exist within two degrees of separation from one another. Despite opening as a fascinating study of modern disconnect, The Girl on the Train becomes a clumsy narrative about how everybody is ultimately connected to one another. Indeed, the details tend to blur towards the climax of the film. Is the mysterious woman who Rachel watched from the train actually a mystery to her at all?

Of course, Gone Girl hinged on such contrivances, and The Girl on the Train is consciously structured to evoke that pulpy thriller. The story is structured with all manner of revelations and twists, distortions of narrative and perception by various characters. More than that, Tate Taylor very clearly watched a lot of Fincher before working on the film. There are a lot of shots of characters almost staring right into the camera. There are lots of scenes composed with an almost clinical distance.

Being Blunt.

Being Blunt.

However, Taylor is not Fincher. Part of the cleverness of Gone Girl was the way that the film was layered with knowing irony. It was a film about narrative and performance that turned its absurdity into some sort of pulpy grand guginol. The Girl on the Train lacks that sense of self-awareness, instead settling on po-faced seriousness. It is an approach that immediately undercuts the way that the narrative turns and curls, treating the material so earnestly that the audience has no choice but to laugh at how oblivious the film is to its own ridiculousness.

Taylor is also a very clumsy director. As much as he tries to emulate the craft and precision that marks Fincher’s work, Taylor lacks the same basic skill for framing a shot. As a result, several moments in the film threaten to veer into unintentional camp. After a failed babynapping, Taylor cuts to a wide shot of a character escaping into a ditch, holding their arms out to steady themselves; it is meant to be a powerful and tragic moment, but it plays like a gag shot.

True to (plat)form.

True to (plat)form.

At another point, a character is being strangled as they reach for several blunt instruments just inside their grasp. It is a moment that could be tense, but the decision to frame it as a wide shot emphasises just how many blunt strangler-concussing instruments are within the victim’s grasp. It is a sequence that feels like it belongs in a parody of a thriller like this, rather than at the climax of one. It is a perfect example of everything that The Girl on the Train does wrong, executing familiar thriller moments in the most banal and ineffective manner possible.

“My husband says that I have an overactive imagination,” Rachel concedes in the opening minutes of The Girl on the Train. Sadly, the film cannot match her.

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2 Responses

  1. Having seen the film I have to agree it is no ‘Gone Girl’.

    The ‘feminist’ end is just bizarre, not only because it is poorly written but it actually robs our lead female character of a lot of… well… character. I can’t really talk about the end without going into spoiler territory but I do think that reinterpretation of in-character flaws to Rachel was a disastrous choice and made her a far weaker character than was necessary. In bending over backwards to strip her of dislikable qualities the film also robbed her of agency and complexity.

    In contrast ‘Gone Girl’ was willing to accept that a female character can be as evil as any man (wonderfully entertainingly so in ‘Gone Girl’) without trying to explain her flaws away as being solely down to victomhood. Honestly ‘The Girl on the Train’ seems far more regressive in its treatment of female characters.

    • Yep.

      I suppose we can allude to the spoilers in the comments, although I’ll probably still keep it vague. The most interesting aspects of the first act of The Girl on the Train concern the unreliability of the narrator. However, the final act of the film completely undercuts that by revealing that she was completely reliable all along. You’re right about it diminishing Rachel as a character, because it robs her of her most interesting facets to turn her into a generic thriller lead.

      And I’d agree with Gone Girl. Most of the criticisms of Gone Girl seem to misinterpret the twist as letting Nick off the hook and revealing him as an innocent victim in all of this. The film is not the story of a predatory woman and an innocent man, it is essentially the tale of two self-obsessed sociopaths. Nick just doesn’t commit to it in the same way, but it’s definitely there. Most blatantly in his manipulations during the interview.

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