“The Girl on the Train”: A poor version of better thrillers

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This article was originally published for the University of Denver newspaper, the DU Clarion. It has been republished here with permission. The original can be found here.

Imagine yourself eating a steak. Now, if that steak is juicy, rich and cooked just right, that steak is “Gone Girl.” It’s “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.” It’s every great thriller with strong female roles that you can think of in the past decade. Now, if that steak you’re imagining is a dry, frozen cutlet that at first sort of fulfills your craving for the finer things but makes you realize it’s trash by the time your plate is empty, it is “The Girl on the Train.”

The newest adaptation in a long line of best selling potboilers put to the screen, the film follows battered alcoholic Rachel Watson (Emily Blunt, “Sicario”), who gets drunk and rides the train past her old house every day, where her ex-husband (Justin Theroux, “The Leftovers”) and his new wife (Rebecca Ferguson, “Mission: Impossible -Rouge Nation”) live with their newborn child. However, her ex’s new life isn’t the only obsession of Rachel’s, as she also spies on the couple two doors down and sees them as the perfect duo, everything she once had, until she spots the wife (Haley Bennett, “The Equalizer”) in this fairy tale with another man. Drunk and enraged, Rachel confronts the woman before blacking out. When she wakes up, the woman is missing and it’s up to Rachel to try and remember what happened that night.

This all sounds fine and good, like a perfectly serviceable set-up for an interesting mystery and character study. Except the execution is where the film misfires. The kind of plot being used is one that lives and dies by its writing and acting, and neither are particularly exciting here. Blunt can be excellent at times, as expected, but struggles to elevate the ridiculous writing behind her drunken rants and paranoia, which are clearly written by someone who has never really been around an intoxicated person before. Meanwhile, the usually fiery Ferguson is given a role as exciting as a piece of white bread and Bennett is simply instructed to act sexy and mysterious save for a few emotional scenes.

In these blandly written roles, “The Girl on the Train’s” main problem comes through: it is a film entirely defined by its use of stereotypes, and even worse, cliché. The script is chock-full of so many of the pathetic typecasts often used to define female characters. The messy and obsessive ex. The stuck-up, boring wife. And of course, the aloof but erotic girl with a dark past. These are all the makings of garbage, not the artful highs with messages of empowerment that this film is trying to be. However, garbage can be good. Trash can say something, but it has to subvert your expectations in order to do so. It has to build a world with the trash and then send it somewhere unexpected. “The Girl on the Train” takes this locomotive full of waste and chooses to follow the tracks of the generic, where everything is predictable and nothing of value is learned. For a film marketing itself as an adaptation based on “the thriller that shocked the world,” this seems at best misguided, and at worst insulting to the intelligence of its audience.

It all adds up to a film where simply nothing clicks, where the emotional suspense and drama of the script never rise above a murmur. Everything just happens, and then it’s over. “The Girl on the Train” appears to bring the expensive steak to the table, but beware: it might be the most disappointing dinner you’ve had in awhile.

Ryan Ninesling