Emily Blunt film

THE GIRL ON THE TRAIN Review: Too Up Close and Personal

Monday, October 10, 2016 Rob Samuelson

A closeup is something filmmakers use to showcase the depth their actors bring to their characters; to raise the stakes in a tense moment; to bring a viewer closer to an actor than they would in any other medium. It is a technique that is best deployed rarely to heighten an audience’s awareness of the moment, to indicate, “This is important.” Go to that well too many times and soon the intimacy one gets from spending so much time with a famous person’s face flattens the rest of the movie.

The Girl on the Train’s lead, Emily Blunt (Sicario, Edge of Tomorrow), is the type of performer who can inspire a magnificent range of emotions in anyone who watches her on the screen, but even she is no miracle worker who can overcome a director’s monotonous decisions. Tate Taylor’s (The Help) choice to shoot so much of the film in closeup forces his three primary actors -- Blunt, Hardcore Henry’s Haley Bennett, and Mission: Impossible — Rogue Nation’s Rebecca Ferguson -- to compete against themselves and each other to see who can keep the emoting momentum going the longest. Taylor's invasive camera undermines the goal of ratcheting up tension. Under these circumstances, each performance grows repetitive and two-dimensional rather than rising and falling with the action as drama requires -- this is not a fault inherent in the performances but rather the film’s inability to give the performances space to breathe.

If the same cast and script by Erin Cressida Wilson (adapted from the novel of the same name by Paula Hawkins) had been paired with another filmmaker behind the camera, The Girl on the Train could have been something special. The story is a juicy, subversive potboiler that makes you question everything you see. An alcoholic woman named Rachel (Blunt), grieving over her divorce from Tom (Justin Theroux), witnesses a heinous crime in her ex-husband’s neighborhood while in a state of near-blackout. The police, led by Allison Janney (The West Wing) as a local detective in the ritzy New York suburb of the film’s setting, suspect Rachel murdered her ex-husband’s neighbor, Megan (Bennett), in order to make a move on Megan’s husband, Scott (Luke Evans). Nobody trusts Rachel. She doesn’t trust herself. How can we?

That tension is central to the movie and provides most of its highlights. With Rachel flickering in and out of lucidity, her deep-down suspicions that she did not hurt anyone don’t seem to carry a lot of weight. She puts herself in bad situations -- alcoholism will do that to you -- that only worsens her position in the eyes of the police and her former husband, who is concerned about the safety of his new wife, Anna (Ferguson), and infant daughter. Rachel has already shown up at their house once and walked out the front door carrying the baby, so concern is a rational response, particularly when there’s murder afoot.

But The Girl on the Train is not just Rachel’s story. It is also the story of Megan and Anna and Tom, who connects them all. Wilson’s script grows each character into conflicted, sometimes tortured people. Megan is a damaged former wild child who settled with a “sweet” setup of a handsome, obviously successful husband (have you seen that house?), but his perpetual pestering for a baby and his bubbling jealousy (including his penchant for being able to figure out all of Megan’s email passwords for spying purposes) reveal her life in the “baby factory” suburb to be an empty, unhappy sham. Anna begins the film little more than an vaguely pleasant shell, with a Stepford Wives-style medicated affectation. She cannot handle motherhood even though she doesn’t have a job, so she busies herself with trips to farmers markets and other time-wasting projects while Megan glumly works as the couple’s nanny. The unhappiness is palpable and it is overwhelming. Anna is not a blank slate despite the figure she projects to the world, and as the film’s events unfold, she cannot retain her calmness -- Ferguson’s performance of a breakdown (breakthrough?) is unnerving and encouraging at the same time.

Much like his current wife, Tom is a surface-first creature, trying like mad to keep his inner turmoil buried. He fakes aggravation at his “sad person” ex-wife’s constant pestering via text message and voicemail. Theroux makes Tom shrug with a “what can I do?” expression, displaying potentially phony concern for all parties involved. He is the ultimate conciliator, although he may not operate in good faith. He knows how to placate (and play) those around him so everyone calms down. If he is successful in navigating the waters of heightened interpersonal conflict, it will be less hassle for him in the end. He is the consummate “good guy” who avoids conflict for the betterment of everyone -- but especially for himself. The role he plays in each woman’s life reveals a different aspect of him, each ugly.

In spite of The Girl on the Train’s strengths with plot and character, cinema is a visual genre, and Taylor’s direction does not live up to that. The closeups are ubiquitous, as noted above, but his oppressive use of the colors blue and gray do the picture no favors, either. He incorporates a shaky slow motion effect throughout the movie as well, perhaps to highlight the connections between Rachel’s inebriation and the fluid truth she seeks, but it looks choppy. It is another of Taylor’s film-tanking preoccupations, of which there are too many to leave a lasting, positive impression.

The Girl on the Train
Director: Tate Taylor
Writer: Erin Cressida Wilson
Starring: Emily Blunt, Haley Bennett, Rebecca Ferguson, Justin Theroux, Luke Evans, Édgar Ramírez, Allison Janney
Rating: Two-and-a-half stars out of five

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