Girl on the Train attempts to be both reverently Hitchcockian and solemnly realist. The drama and suspense build up steadily to the climax and the audience scrambles along with tense anticipation the whole way. The violence is enigmatic but the characters and situations are brutally authentic. The film depicts serious issues within a landscape of surreal mystery. Although the film is sensational in tone, its portrayal of life is more honest than Hollywood normally presents.
Emily Blunt stars as Rachel, a lonely divorcee who admires a perfect couple from her train window each day on her commute to work. When the perfect wife, Megan (Haley Bennett) is announced missing, their lives become chaotically entwined. Rachel has no alibi for the night in question and she wakes up covered in blood and bruises. As the truth begins to unravel, Rachel’s ex-husband Tom (Justin Theroux) and his new wife Anna (Rebecca Ferguson) get dragged into the mix and old habits threaten to consume Rachel.
Reminiscent of Hitchcock, the film employs classic suspense techniques: an overarching mystery- Megan’s disappearance, and a crafty avoidance of solid facts. The audience understands that something bad has happened but is clueless as to what and how the characters are involved. Bit by bit the truth unfolds, complimented by many red herrings. Rachel is a relapsed alcoholic, struggling to get by without alcohol and failing each day. The film uses this central flaw to obfuscate the mystery. While most mysteries depend on a character not having the full story, Rachel simply can't remember what happened due to her drinking.
Each female character has a specific type of lighting associated with her for most of the film. Rachel’s is a harsh light that details all her imperfections. As in her life, she can’t escape the ceaseless highlight of her faults. Megan’s lighting is mostly soft with many shadows working to conceal and veil. Anna prefers a soft, golden light to emphasize her beauty and innocence.
The portrayal of women in Girl on the Train is refreshingly realistic. The characters are multilayered, a luxury not always afforded to female characters. Rachel is not only an ex-wife, she’s a roommate, an alcoholic and a human being. Megan is a sex object but she’s also fragile, both innocent and culpable. Anna is all at once the mother figure, spiteful wife, and innocent bystander. The women are portrayed with all their various flaws-physical and otherwise, and every time they near a predictable archetype, the character’s path veers in a different direction. Rather than boxing Rachel into a standard type of leading lady, she is left enigmatic. Like Rachel herself, the audience doesn’t know if she is innocent or guilty.
Blunt’s portrayal of a woman on the verge of a breakdown is powerful. She sets the bar high with her honest and authentic depiction of a female alcoholic- a character not often represented in Hollywood movies. Seeking solace in alcohol after she failed to get pregnant, her infertility serves as a trigger for Rachel. She travels on the train each day with a water bottle full of vodka, waiting for something to push her to sip from it. When a mother and baby sit next to her Rachel wants nothing more than to hold the child. Her drunkenness gives her away though and the mother snatches the baby away and moves on. Each botched encounter drives her to relapse which traps her in a vicious cycle of failures.
As Rachel struggles to understand what happened the night of Megan’s disappearance and pieces together the fragments of her splintered memory, she begins to reassemble her own shattered life. The audience experiences the mystery unfolding through Anna & Megan’s eyes too, as their roles in each other’s lives snap into place. The discovery of the truth behind Megan’s disappearance leads the women to discover things about themselves, each of them bringing new information to light and culminating in an intense climax and satisfying conclusion.
Girl on the Train represents women as complex human beings and serves as another example that films featuring full realized female characters can be compelling and financially successful. It walks an interesting line between two extremes: realism and suspense. Though the action sometimes gets lost in translation as the audience struggles to keep up, the characters are relatable and real. Rachel is simultaneously despicable and pitiable; weak and strong; villainous and heroic; proving that multilayered women make for the best characters.