A flawed character struggles to unravel the threads of a pivotal event, though hobbled by some impediment – amnesia, maybe, or being stranded in a foreign country where everyone speaks an unfamiliar language. It’s a dramatic device of my favourite genre, but suspense thrillers are few and far between these days.
In The Girl on the Train, released in 2016 and available on DVD at Whitehorse Public Library, it’s an alcoholic blackout that moors Rachel Watson with scraps of memory after waking up bruised and covered in blood from an incident she can’t remember, which occurred about the same time that a woman went missing from her suburban home.
The woman and her husband were objects of fascination to Rachel, who has committed fully to alcohol in the sad aftermath of the breakdown of her marriage.
Rachel has lost her job and resorted to pretending to her eminently kind roommate that she’s still going to work every day, riding the train back and forth from Manhattan to her previous home in the suburbs. From the train she catches glimpses of Megan (Haley Bennett) and her husband, and fantasizes about the connubial bliss between them. But one day Rachel sees Megan embracing a different man and that enrages her.
Did she act on that rage? Rachel is known to be violent in her blackout episodes. “When you wake up like that, you don’t ask what happened, you just say that you’re sorry,” she says.
Those incidents were perhaps the last straw for her husband Tom (Justin Theroux), who is now living in their old house with his new wife, Anna, and their infant daughter. Updates of their picture-perfect life are all too available on Facebook to torment Rachel.
Megan’s secrets, confided to a fascinatingly compromised therapist (Edgar Ramirez), may hold the key to her disappearance. She’s a fish out of water in the suburbs, a siren haunted by her gothic past, and coincidentally, an unlikely nanny for Tom and Anna.
Anna herself is trying to cope with troublesome Rachel’s constant calls to her ex-husband and her unpredictable appearances at her former home.
The Girl on the Train is based on the novel by Paula Hawkins, adapted for the screen by Erin Cressida Wilson and directed by Tate Taylor (The Help). The novel is set in London, England, but the screenplay transfers the setting to the picturesque landscape along the Hudson River in New York. A retro feel clings to the film, evoking Hitchcock in its twists and turns, though the core of the mystery is ultimately contemporary.
Emily Blunt’s performance as Rachel – the unstable, often cringe-inducing, anti-heroine at the center of the plot – is one of the strongest elements of The Girl on the Train, together with Danny Elfman’s exceptional score and the cinematography of Charlotte Bruus Christensen.
Lisa Kudrow plays a small but important role in propelling the film forward and Allison Janney plays Detective Sergeant Riley, whose own sleuthing isn’t much more competent than Rachel’s addled efforts to investigate Megan’s fate.