Why The Girl on the Train is tabloid cinema

If a movie is stripped down to its plot, the logic had better be watertight. This is transparently not the case here.

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Not being among the 11 million readers of the thriller The Girl on the Train, I can’t get too exercised about the film-makers’ decision to relocate the action of the novel from London to the suburbs of New York. (That switch, says the producer Marc Platt, “allowed us to have a stronger relatability for our domestic audience”. Because, as everyone knows, it’s a bummer watching anything that isn’t set on your own doorstep.)

Nor can I bring myself to decry the changes to the main character, Rachel. On the page, she is a dishevelled, overweight drunk whose only escape from the memory of her failed marriage is to stare out of the window of a creeping commuter train and speculate about the lives of the people she passes. If you hear the words “dishevelled, overweight drunk” and think immediately of Emily Blunt, it’s your lucky day.

Despite the compromise casting, Blunt is convincingly fuzzy and sad-eyed. The rule about acting sloshed is not to. Focus intently on trying to convince the world you’re sober and the rest will follow. This suits Blunt just fine. If there’s one thing she can do, it’s concentrate; even in My Summer of Love, her charm felt studied. When she starts enjoying herself for a moment in The Girl on the Train, the film plays a nifty joke on her. What we hear Rachel say is: “For the first time in ages, I have a purpose.” What we see – she’s shooting pool with a stranger in a dingy bar – undermines that boast.

The cause of Rachel’s excitement is a missing persons case involving the woman she spies on every day. Megan (Haley Bennett) represents for Rachel everything she has lost. Megan has a fetching husband, Scott (Luke Evans), and a fancy house with a balcony where vital plot points can be conveniently staged for Rachel’s benefit.

What Rachel doesn’t know is that Megan’s life is in greater turmoil than even her own. She is sexually promiscuous, which is movie shorthand for eternal damnation. When she goes missing, she is about to leave her job as a nanny, working for Anna (Rebecca Ferguson) and Tom (Justin Theroux). Did I mention that Tom is also Rachel’s ex-husband? And that Rachel has been pestering Anna with nuisance calls? Small world!

The screenwriter, Erin Cressida ­Wilson, has likened the film to “a moving Rear Window”, which both overlooks the point of Hitchcock’s picture and highlights the problem with this one. Whereas Rear Window is restricted to a single location – along with James Stewart in his wheelchair – no one in The Girl on the Train is actually confined, although they do all need to live in close proximity to one another, and to share unlikely connections, in order for the story to function.

Coincidences and chance encounters happen all the time in life but in fiction they can easily look suspect. The solution is either not to depend entirely on them, which The Girl on the Train does, or to disguise them, which it doesn’t. A skilful director would have distracted us with interesting visual tricks and textures, but Tate Taylor shoots everything in bright, bland close-ups designed for a television audience. (When the film ends up there, it will be indistinguishable from the commercials.)

If a movie is stripped down to its plot, the logic had better be watertight, which is transparently not the case here. The whole climax hinges on a fortuitous meeting between Rachel and a woman who provides her with the information she needs to solve the mystery. Inspiration falls into her lap like a dossier marked “Top Secret”. If it were that easy, we could all of us be Miss Marples.

The Girl on the Train is tabloid cinema: it gets the audience all juiced up on the very scenes of domestic violence and murder that it professes to deplore. Against the odds, a few intriguing moments slip through, such as the brief scene in which Rachel, soused as usual, coos over a baby, only for the child’s mother to recoil. She is African American, which wouldn’t be worth remarking upon, were it not for the uncommon sight in a Hollywood movie of a black person being frightened by a well-spoken white woman, rather than vice versa. 

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Now listen to a review of The Girl on the Train on the NS pop culture podcast, SRSLY:

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards and is Film Critic in Residence at Falmouth University.

This article appears in the 06 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Trump's triumph