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.
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 characters 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.
As a movie, as straight-up entertainment, Train is itself a bit of mess. 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.