“The Girl on the Train” turns out to be a complex thriller

Photo courtesy of Universal Pictures

Photo courtesy of Universal Pictures

–By Nora Fitzgerald

 

The Girl on the Train (Dreamworks SKG, Universal Pictures) is a dark thriller about three women and a baby. That is, Rachel wants a baby but can’t have one, Anna has a baby, and Meagan wants nothing to do with babies. But the one actual baby involved isn’t on screen much, and there is only one scene where a vacant-eyed childless woman clutches another woman’s infant while being shouted at to please, please put the baby down!

It’s not that kind of movie, the kind that cheaply exploits our emotions around something as basic as wanting a child. It’s got more class. But baby love is at the heart of it in so far as the wanting and not having of babies make for good dramatic motivations and plotlines.

Photo courtesy of Universal Pictures

Photo courtesy of Universal Pictures

The movie takes place in one of New York City’s wealthy commuter communities, where moneyed, sophisticated people go specifically to raise their young. However, the location is just being used as an attractive but essentially bland backdrop for us to observe the characters and try to figure out who isn’t what he or she seems.

Right off the bat we’re told to be suspicious of the alcohol-addled main character, Rachael Watson, played beautifully by Emily Blunt. She mastered the look of someone who knows herself to be very drunk and in order to stay upright must concentrate every breath and muscle to the task.

We’re told by Rachel herself she’s not to be trusted as she narrates her drunken days riding the commuter train and spying from her seat into the backyard and windows of a couple she has conceived a great envy of. She stops only to buy bottles of vodka with which to replenish her water bottle. Her marriage is over and it appears that the problem is not so much that she couldn’t have a baby but that she couldn’t handle not being able to have a baby.

Then Rachel’s ex-husband (Tom, played by Justin Theroux) remarries a beautiful, hard-edged, blond woman, (Anna, played by Rebecca Ferguson) who immediately comes up with the goods. Rachel is accused of harassing the family with endless late-night phone calls, and not surprisingly she blacks out most of what she does and says.

One day Rachel sees the perfect woman she has been spying on—Megan, played by Haley Bennett—kissing and hugging a man who is not her husband. When the woman comes up missing, Rachel feels compelled to tell the police what she saw. Just a word of advice here: don’t bother staggering into a police station with a hot tip. You might not even get a good reception from Allison Janney, who often plays the kind of intelligent, sensitive character you could rely on to look beyond the booze. Here she’s a cynical, sneering detective and she immediately sizes up Rachel as a stalker and sends her away.

Photo courtesy of Universal Pictures

Photo courtesy of Universal Pictures

So Rachel goes to the husband of the missing woman, lying to him that she was a friend of his wife’s. From there the movie unfolds beyond Rachel’s story and a short list of people potentially involved in the woman’s disappearance accumulates. It includes Megan’s husband, her psychiatrist, and an anonymous man from the train, but there is always the possibility someone will be sprung on us out of nowhere.

In the movie’s narrative, Rachel is not a suspect. It doesn’t really make sense. But she herself, and we the audience, can’t help wondering if she had a role in the disappearance that she’s not even aware of. What about those black outs?

The movie’s writing is taut but the character depth is given mostly to Rachel. There is a deft point at which we are led to suddenly shift our suspicions in regard to Rachel. The motivations of the others are less developed and credible.

There is enough complexity to the story to call it a thriller, but it doesn’t rise to the level of the best kind of psychological “why-done-it.”  The cast goes deep considering that Allison Janney, Lisa Kudrow and Laura Pepon all have relatively minor roles, which they naturally carry off well.

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