by Peter J. O'Connell
The Girl on the Train. Released: Oct. 2016. Runtime: 112 mins. MPAA Rating: R for violence, sexual content, language and nudity.
Every weekday Rachel (Emily Blunt), along with thousands of commuters, rides the train into New York City from the suburbs. The commuters reach Grand Central and go out to their jobs. Rachel doesn't. The attractive but sadfaced young woman sits in the terminal all day. Sometimes she sketches some kind of vague scene taking place in a dark tunnel. At the end of the day, Rachel rides back to the suburbs, where she is staying with a friend from her college days (Laura Prepon).
On her train ride, Rachel tends to become animated only when she looks out the window at a certain two houses near each other and the railroad tracks. Why is Rachel sad? Why is she interested in these two houses? Why does she ride the train so much?
Rachel does these things because her life is, so to speak, a “trainwreck.” She is an alcoholic struggling to recover. And she is a depressed divorcee, whose ex-husband, Tom (Justin Theroux), had criticized her for being infertile and placed blame for his loss of a job on her drinking. Now Tom and his new wife, Anna (Rebecca Ferguson), and infant daughter live in the house near the tracks that used to be Tom and Rachel's home.
The second house that obsesses Rachel belongs to another couple, Scott (Luke Evans) and Megan (Haley Bennett). Rachel fantasizes that the couple is a very happy one, but then she believes that she sees something involving Megan that shocks her. When Megan is reported missing, Rachel seeks to become part of the investigation of her disappearance.
The investigation is led by Detective Riley (Allison Janney), who actually suspects that Rachel may have some role in whatever happened to Megan. Rachel had engaged in some stalking-type behavior toward Tom and Anna, and Megan was both a neighbor of that couple and a nanny for their daughter. Meanwhile, it begins to seem that if Rachel can figure out the significance of the tunnel scene that she draws, she may gain insight into Megan's fate.
The Girl on the Train develops as both a psychological thriller and a psychological drama of the type more often found in Continental European films than Anglo-American ones. The time frame is fractured; events are out of chronological sequence. There are flashbacks by several characters. The bond between reality and fantasy is sometimes tenuous. Some characters resemble each other. There are many closeups. Much of the film is visuals and dialogue rather than action—though the action is intense when it does occur.
All of this makes Girl a motion-picture puzzle. The audience can work up a mental sweat trying to put the pieces together so as to learn what is going on or has gone on—just as Rachel struggles to understand the truth about her past and present and that of the other characters. But once the truth becomes known, the “exercising” audience can “cool down,” for the film's climax is chilling.
Emily Blunt as Rachel is quite simply superb. Her expressive face, though often of a haunted mien, can movingly convey a range of emotions. Blessed in the choice of lead actress, director Tate Taylor's film also uses cinematography in creative and effective ways through changes of focus and lighting linked to plot points and character development. For an audience willing to “work out,” The Girl on the Train offers enjoyable exercise.