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artisanal film reviews | by maryann johanson

The Girl on the Train movie review: in praise of flawed women

The Girl on the Train green light

MaryAnn’s quick take…
An imperfect adaptation of an uncinematic novel is nevertheless a challenging portrait of a woman as deeply screwed up as usually only men get to be onscreen.tweet
I’m “biast” (pro): love Emily Blunt, desperate for movies about women
I’m “biast” (con): nothing
I have read the source material (and I am indifferent about it)
(what is this about? see my critic’s minifesto)

It is a sad irony that one of the underlying themes of The Girl on the Train — how women are demeaned, belittled, and infantilized as a matter of course in our culture, often to the point where we don’t even appreciate that that is what is being done to us — is reinforced by its very title. The “girl” on the train is Rachel Watson, who regularly rides the Metro-North commuter railroad into Manhattan’s Grand Central Terminal and one day witnesses something happening outside a house alongside the tracks that will change her whole life. But Rachel — played with a beautiful ugliness by the always amazing Emily Blunt — is not a girl. She is not a child. She is a grown woman. She is unequivocably a mess — obsessive, alcoholic, delusional, and self-absorbed — but she is unquestionably an adult.

You think I’m making too much of a word? Look at it this way: Imagine it were a man on the train who witnessed something. Do you think there’s any way in hell this story would ever have been entitled The Boy on the Train? Of course it wouldn’t. That sounds like a bedtime story for toddlers.

The Girl on the Train is a better story about women than 99 percent of the big trashy popcorn movies that are its peers, simply in that it is about women.
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That the irony of the title is surely unintended only makes matters worse: the belittling of women is so unthinking, so reflexive, so unnoticed, that even a story written by a woman — this is based on Paula Hawkins’s bestselling novel of the same title — and a story that is on women’s side falls into that trap.

All that said: The Girl on the Train is a better story about women than 99 percent of the big trashy popcorn movies that are its peers, simply in that it is about women: women’s problems, women’s worries, women’s fears, and how the same forces that infantilize women also can isolate women from and turn women against the other women who should be their allies, not their enemies. Train features not one, not two, but three complicated, realistic female characterstweet who, by dint of the way their lives are structured — cordoned off into comfortable suburban gilded cages (or excluded from them), presumed to be required to resent one another — have no inkling of how alike they actually are. There’s Rachel (Blunt: The Huntsman: Winter’s War, Sicario), who is very unhappily divorced from Tom (Justin Theroux: Zoolander 2, Your Highness); Tom is now married to Anna (Rebecca Ferguson: Florence Foster Jenkins, Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation), and they live in the same house near the railroad tracks where Rachel once lived with Tom. And it’s while gazing at her old home with a longing jealousy and an unwillingness to let go of the past that Rachel finds herself preoccupied with the neighbors a few doors down, Megan (Haley Bennett: The Magnificent Seven, The Equalizer) and Scott (Luke Evans: High-Rise, Furious 7). Megan and Scott are beautiful and sexy (and prone to having an exhibitionist boink in the picture window while trains go by) and, you know, clearly their life together is perfect in a way that Rachel can only dream of.

Of course it’s a truism that people whose lives look perfect from the outside are rarely as happy as we imagine them to be, but that takes a particularly feminist bent here when Rachel sees, from the train, Megan doing something on the balcony of her home that shatters Rachel’s fantasy about what Megan’s life is like. And then Megan goes missing, and it’s all over the news (as it always is when a pretty white woman disappears from her seemingly perfect life; that’s probably what has prompted the comparisons of Train to Gone Girl, though they’re no more alike than any two given movies about messed-up men ever are). And via a series of flashbacks and sidetracks, we start to get Megan’s story, which involves her being taunted by fantasies about domestic bliss and motherhood courtesy of Tom and Anna’s seemingly perfect life; Megan had worked briefly for them as a nanny to their new baby. These are fantasies that Megan rejects (even though she, as a woman, is not supposed to) because of her own background of messed-up-edness.

The truism that people whose lives look perfect are rarely as happy as they seem gets a particularly feminist bent here.
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As a movie, as straight-up entertainment, Train is itself a bit of mess.tweet The jumping back and forth in time, which worked well enough in the book, is a bit confusing here, partly because the plot is so internal and demands so deep an appreciation of what is going on inside the heads of these women that translating it to cinematic action was never going to be an easy task. And dumping a ton of narration on us isn’t the solution it might have seemed to be. The ultimate resolution to the mystery of Megan’s disappearance is not as surprising as it might have been, though that is a problem with the novel as well. (One thing that isn’t a problem: shifting the action from London and its suburbs to New York City and its environs. Though it’s a little easier to be an alcoholic commuter in London, where you can purchase convenience-sized containers of booze for the ride home right at the station! Rachel must resort of pouring vodka into a water bottle and hoping that she’s fooling anyone watching her. She isn’t, of course.)

But still: As Rachel wriggles her way into the investigation into Megan’s disappearance for reasons that have nothing to do with a quest for justice and everything to do with Rachel’s own selfishness — it gives her a purpose she hasn’t had in a long time, or at least, as she herself notes wryly, a distraction from her own problems — Train becomes a striking portrait of a fundamentally screwed-up woman. Rachel, as a character, is granted the freedom to be as big a personal disaster as men frequently get to be onscreen, and women hardly ever do. Rachel is a challenge to those around her — including the fourth woman to arrive on the scene, Allison Janney (Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children, Minions) as the unsympathetic cop on the case — and to the audience as well. We are not required to like Rachel any more than we are required to like many of the awful men who are often presented to us as characters whose lives it is presumed we will at least engage with. Are we able to grant Rachel the same consideration, that even if she is not a nice person, she is still a person whose story is worth hearing?

It’s hardly a difficult task: Rachel is a flawed, difficult, contradictory human being, just like we all are. And yet I fear that the men here, Tom and Scott, who are to varying degrees abusive, angry, and controlling, will be seen by many as more sympathetic than Rachel, Megan, or Anna. Not because the movie depicts the men as sympathetic, but only because movies — our entire culture — have trained us to give men the benefit of any doubt, and to give none to women. Movies like The Girl on the Train — as lurid, as melodramatic, and ultimately even as scattered as it is — could go a ways toward rectifying that. But only if we are open to the possibility that women are people too.


green light 3.5 stars

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The Girl on the Train (2016) | directed by Tate Taylor
US/Can release: Oct 07 2016
UK/Ire release: Oct 05 2016

MPAA: rated R for violence, sexual content, language and nudity
BBFC: rated 15 (strong language, sex, violence)

viewed at a public multiplex screening

official site | IMDb | trailer
more reviews: Movie Review Query Engine | Rotten Tomatoes

If you’re tempted to post a comment that resembles anything on the film review comment bingo card, you might want to reconsider.

  • Tamara Hall

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  • Louisa

    Language is something that evolves over time through actual usage. The result being that “man” and “woman”, like “boy” and “girl”, are not mirror images of each other, and cannot be used interchangeably. Just one example (there are probably thousands): The old-fashioned phrase “my man” could be used to mean one’s agent or representative, one’s servant, one’s husband, or as a friendly form of address to a stranger. Using the phrase “my woman” in any of those circumstances would be cringingly rude and offensive. Depending on context, the word “woman” can carry connotations of respect and deference, of contempt and scorn, or of sensuality/allure/mystique, that “man” simply would not convey in the same context. The GOOD writer and the polite human being, then, will simply choose a different word.

    Stating that the film uses “girl” to mean something other than “female child” doesn’t prove that the film is demeaning women, just that it is using the English language correctly. Any dictionary will tell you that “young woman” is one of the meanings for “girl”. Dictionaries also acknowledge “man” or “young man” as one of the meanings for “Boy”. Adult men are described as “boys”, as in the films “Bad Boys” or “Jersey Boys”, the music groups Pet Shop Boys or Bedlam Boys, in the words flyboys and cowboys.

    The fact that “boy” will not work in all the situations where “girl” would doesn’t mean that “girl” should never be used in such cases. Like you say, “Boy on a Train” doesn’t work as a thriller title. “Girl on a Train” obviously does, and kudos to the author for choosing it. Likewise, there are many situations where “boy” might be completely inoffensive but “girl” would sound belittling. (You might say “women in blue” rather than “boys in blue”, for example.) That is just common sense.

    Another counterpart for the word “Girl” is the word “Guy”, which is extensively used in film titles and in informal conversation to apply to grown men. In every office setting where I have worked, the women (often middle aged) referred to each other as “girls”. If the woman was too old to get away with “girl” she would be a “gal”, NEVER a “woman”. And the men were “guys”, not “men”.

  • Danielm80

    My question is: How could Danny Elfman come up with such a bland, forgettable score?

  • Ryan

    A very fair review. The plot was by the numbers. It almost felt like an early/mid 90’s thriller. The sort of film Julia Robert’s would appear in. Yet, it was very well made. The art direction/cinematography was spot on. Most shots were close up, so we felt very much in the mindset of the characters. It gave a very claustrophobic feel to these characters lives. I felt trapped in their heads with them. It was very subtle at first, but we got closer and closer to Emily Blunt specifically, where you could slowly see she really wasn’t looking after herself. And it became quite apparent she was an alcoholic. Alcoholism isn’t always readily apparent and it’s only when you focus on someone in detail, that you can notice they have a problem. And boy was Blunt’s character flawed. But, any decision she made was always believably sane, until a third party interacted with her, reflecting their sanity onto her insanity mirror. The ‘twists’ were quite easily arrived at. There are only a certain number of characters who can do certain things to/with each other. Nothing’s a surprise. My only true disappoint, as a Londoner, I find the story somewhat more believable, that in my city these kinds of people can lead the public/private lives that they lead. It’s easier to live anonymously here. With both suburbia and urban living being very isolating.

  • Stating that the film uses “girl” to mean something other than “female child” doesn’t prove that the film is demeaning women, just that it is using the English language correctly.

    Sure. The English language correctly reflects the fact that our culture demeans and infantilizes women.

  • Louisa

    I knew you were going to say exactly that. Your typical response is to scan my comment for a single sentence you can take out of context, and respond with some cliche, thus ignoring any of my actual points. Apparently the women you believe deserve respect don’t include me, or even yourself. Otherwise, you would hold yourself to a more honorable standard of behavior.

    Yes, our language and culture demean women. But what is it that makes the use of “Girl” an example of this. According to your review, it is because “Boy” would not be used in the same way. I raised three reasonable objections to this, all of which you simply blew off. Treatment that I find far more insulting and than being referred to as a “girl”.

    To repeat myself, the very fact that language and culture have evolved in a sexist context means that, in order to be polite and non-sexist, you cannot use certain female words in the exact same way as their male counterparts. Secondly, “Boy” is indeed used to refer to grown men, in life and in movie titles. Thirdly, “Girl” is a counterpoint to “Guy” as well as to “Boy”, and “Guy” is used extensively in both life and in movies as an informal alternative to “Man”. Clearly the male lords of creation can refer to themselves informally, as “guys”, without being accused of demeaning themselves or of abdicating their male privilege.

    When women refer to themselves and each other as “girls”, the intent is usually to be informal, casual and friendly. Obviously, if “girl” is too informal, it would be insulting. But if men have the right to refer to themselves casually, then so do women. Especially since — thanks to our sexist cultural history — the word “Woman” has insulting and demeaning connotations that “Man” does not.

    What has happened here is that a grown-up woman named Paula Hawkins, whose book has become a feminist-friendly film, chose to refer to her grown up character as a “girl” in the title. As a feminist who claims that women deserve respect, could you not show this respect to Ms. Hawkins by giving some small consideration to the possibility that she — and the many other women who do likewise — might have valid reasons for doing so?

  • Not everything that women do is automatically worthy of respecting merely because they are women.

    I would love to hear Hawkins’ reason for using the word “girl” in her title. But I bet she didn’t even think about it.

  • Louisa

    Yup! You did it again. An evasive cliche instead of an actual response.

    No, not everything women do is worthy of respect. Your behavior on this thread being a case in point. However, I did not suggest you show respect to other women by admiring everything they do. I suggested you show respect by thinking before you judge. I also suggested that you show respect to ME by responding to what I wrote, instead of weaseling out of an honest answer by ignoring and creatively misinterpreting everything I say. Too much to ask, huh?

    And what Ms. Hawkins was thinking on a conscious level when she chose the word “girl” is a) something you don’t know, and b) totally irrelevant according to YOUR own argument.

  • You’re trying to make this about what is “correct” English. This has nothing to do with my argument. I have no desire to have the conversation that you are trying to have.

  • Louisa

    My argument was about whether or not “girl” is “sexist” English. That was the issue you raised, and that is the conversation that I wanted to have. And you know that.

    Clearly YOU are the one who doesn’t want to have the conversation. That is fine. But as I’m sure you are aware, there are easier and more ethical ways to avoid a conversation than by trying to gaslight the person you are talking to. That’s abusive, and completely unnecessary.

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