The Girl on the Train (2016)

There is something about the unreliable narrator that bonds it well with mystery films, that is, until it backfires in the unskilled hands of the handler. Call it the bastardization of the technique, but it is no less a cautionary tale when employing a worn out approach; it can cut both ways. Let the practitioner beware, indeed. This is no knock on director Tate Taylor—the film was doomed to withstand comparisons to a more realized predecessor in Fincher’s Gone Girl. Couple that with overestimating the challenges in—as opposed to simplifying the process of—translating fictional works across media and this becomes a creative minefield laid out as a gauntlet run.

There are praise-worthy moments, though, first among which is Emily Blunt’s shocking makeover from her composed turn in Sicario. Here, her batty inebriate is in turns startling and comical for a leading lady when we discover her alimony is mainly spent shuttling to the city and back during work hours while she pretends to keep a job and swills booze instead; so long as the rent is paid, then all is on the up-and-up with the roommate. Rachel, chief of the story’s three women (all menaced by patriarchy—boring!), takes a particular interest in a line of houses during one of her daily commutes. That row of houses, in Hastings-on-Hudson, offer picturesque backyard views of the track then the Hudson, but are also open to the commuters’ peering eyes, should one choose to peep.

And gawk, she does at the homeowners. Introduced by title cards, Tate would follow that cue with two other women, going back in time, but always anchoring to Rachel’s less than trusty point of view. The other women, Haley Bennet as Megan and Anna as Rebecca Ferguson, are two homemakers living side by side in the two homes Rachel is fixated on. At first, it appears like a harmless what-if exercise; how does that house really look like as a home; what personas inhabit its interiors? Except Tate teases the imagination, depicting Megan’s marriage as harmonious, and a continuous fuck-fest. On the deck. In the shower. By the fireplace. But the real twist is when Tate reveals that Rachel, in a past life, used to live next door. Anna, now married to Rachel’s ex, Tom (Justin Theroux), has taken residence in her old house, on top. Inside her old home, Anna reigns supreme in her domestic kingdom.

It is the kind of sore spot that makes her alcoholism understandable but, by all indications, that is old news and therefore a crutch. Rachel is more alarmed by the young beauty next door when she spots her kissing a stranger on the deck. Triggered by the memories flooding in from her husband’s betrayal, she sets out to put things right during a fit totally rooted in sobriety. She wakes up the next day hungover with news of Megan missing and no memory of being attacked close to Megan’s last known whereabouts.

Though repetitions of that scene is pivotal from an investigatory standpoint, it grates on the viewers after the second time around. We get it, Tate, but we are not the detectives, here. Tate still keeps the cards close to the chest up to the revelation of Tom’s relationship with all three women. Patriarchy indeed. What makes everything murky, is that Megan was also juggling multiple lovers (Tom’s limit is two at a time, she can accommodate three) and the cops’ attention shifts between all possible suspects. All the while, Rachel conducts an investigation of her own despite that recurring scene implicating her in some way we’re not privy to until a certain point in the film’s runtime. You know, when the thrills wear off for example.

There is ample material to dig into regarding the housewives as talking points for feminism and patriarchy, but if only the filmmaker had the creative wherewithal to articulate something other than a straightforward thriller mystery. In one voice-over, Megan babbles about her disdain for yoga classmates for accepting a mundane, drab suburbanite existence with no excitement to speak. Meanwhile she speaks of mentally toiling between fluid identities imposed on her as wife, whore and a possible mother one day. She babysits for Anna next door. Anna is indignant Megan is not of the opinion that full-time motherhood is taxing without the distraction of a real job. It could also be Anna is pissed that Megan quits on the spot and puts the onus back on Anna for having a child in the first place. Apparently between a husband’s urge for parenthood and her idleness, Megan come up with her own perverted Madonna-whore complex! Wait, what? It gets better over on the men’s side; the three men who exploit them are represented by the facial hair grown. I kid you not! It feels like the message, here, is all a woman wants is to be devoured by the gruff, alpha types.

To accuse the authors of plotting an obvious puzzle is a warranted charge for many. Speaking for myself, I find it hard to pick up on most clues if I even bothered with them in the first place. For me what maligned Girl is more the uneven mood than the ceaseless deluge of red herrings. And what it could have gained from exploring its half-baked meditations on suburbia and housewife minutiae is instead outweighed by a devotion to foolproofing it as a whodunit film.

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