What did she see?
There’s been a lot of talk lately about the restorative powers of fiction. Though headlines regularly claim books and reading are under attack, people still keep buying and consuming fiction. One argument for why that’s a good thing tells us that fiction helps us empathize. By literally putting us in the thoughts of another human being, we get to see how others function, and it helps us flex our empathy muscles. That’s true as far as it goes, but it also ignores a slightly darker, though no less important function of literature. And that’s escape. Not in the positive sense of escaping to a better world, but in the sense that fiction can help show us ways our own lives could be different.
The recent “girl” novels – Gone Girl, Girl on the Train, The Girl in Cabin 10 – show us that people definitely want their lives to be different. These novels – as they’ve been turned into films especially – are about the contrast between surface and depth and about the darkness that lurks behind the enviable facade of day-to-day life. As a movie, The Girl on the Train doesn’t quite nail the book’s thematic depth, but it features a solid cast and a quick pace.
Rachel (Emily Blunt, The Devil Wears Prada) is divorced, and if that weren’t bad enough, her daily train ride to work takes her past her former house. But that gets her interested in a couple who lives down the street. Rachel wonders what life is like for Megan (Haley Bennett, The Magnificent Seven) and Scott (Luke Evans, Dracula Untold), but when Megan goes missing, Scott is a suspect. Even worse, Rachel wakes after the disappearance with a hangover and unexplained bruises.
The Girl on the Train has a difficult task in making the leap from page to screen. The novel is largely told from description through the perspective of Rachel. We get her (drunken, unreliable) view of the world and of the mystery surrounding Megan’s disappearance. This gives the novel a lot of charm in addition to its page-turning murder mystery.
The problem for a film is that unreliable narrators are hard to get right on screen. The Girl on the Train opts for voice-over narration. It’s a crutch, but it gets some of the novel’s prose into the viewer’s minds. The real problem with the voice-over is more that we don’t get enough of Rachel. We spend pages and pages hearing from her voice, but that gets reduced to a few lines in the final film. This robs the film version of a lot of the richness that Rachel’s character has on the page.
Luckily the film’s murder-mystery is largely intact, and the film moves quickly to its conclusion. Sure, it stops for its share of twists and turns along the way, but the film knows it needs to generate narrative heat since it doesn’t have the charm of spending time with the inebriated Rachel like the book does. The twists, when they come, will be largely familiar from the book, as will the ending (which is both satisfying but a bit groan-worthy).
What really holds the film together is the cast. Emily Blunt is cast slightly against type as Rachel. She so often plays the uber-confident character (even her glorified gopher in The Devil Wears Prada was competent, if not confident) or the “good guy” (as in Into the Woods), and it’s nice to see her get some range/depth out of playing a struggling alcoholic. One wishes that the rest of the film could live up to her portrayal, but that’s not to be. The rest of the cast doesn’t have nearly as much to do as her, but they serve their roles well. Haley Bennett gets to put another notch in her under appreciated-in-2016 belt. She was great in The Magnificent Seven in the thankless role of the townswoman who gives the Seven an excuse to ride. Here she’s well cast as Megan, the young and apparently dutiful wife. Luke Evans plays her husband Scott with appropriate vigor, though his somewhat sinister look threatens to give the game away.
The Girl on the Train gets a decent Blu-ray release as well. The 1.85:1/1080p AVC-encoded transfer is almost flawless. The image is sourced from film (rare in contemporary productions, but after The Help Tate Taylor has some clout), and it shows. Detail is strong throughout, with a pleasingly organic look to the shots, especially close-ups. Colors are appropriately saturated, though the film has been slightly desaturated in post. Outdoor shots have a slightly abandoned look to them, which fits the film’s thematic concerns. Black levels are deep and consistent, and there are no significant compressions artifacts to speak of. The set’s DTS-HD X track is almost as impressive. Dialogue is clean and clear from the front, with the surrounds used to establish atmosphere. There isn’t quite enough movement to justify the extra channels, but the few times that things get really tense, the track impresses with its clarity and separation.
Extras start with a commentary by Tate Taylor. Aside from the occasional lapse into silence, it’s an informative track that lets Taylor wax philosophical about the novel as well as the filmmaking process. We also get a pair of featurettes. The first talks to novelist Paula Hawkins about the novel and her inspirations, while the second is more a traditional making-of. We also get almost 18 minutes of deleted/extended scenes. Finally, a DVD and Ultraviolet Digital Copy are also included.
The Girl on the Train is a fine diversion of a film. It doesn’t linger much past the credits, but for a fun Friday to share with your friends, it does a fine job of keeping the plot moving, with a little room for some great performances.
The Girl on the Train didn’t set the box office on fire. It was a modest success domestically, but it probably deserves a second shot on home video. Emily Blunt showcases her range, and the rest of the cast keep up in this decent little domestic thriller. Throw in a Blu-ray that’s gorgeous to look at and you’ve got a film that’s at least worth renting.