The Girl on the Train has received mixed to negative reviews from most critics, so I’ll start this review by saying I loved it. In recent years, the rise of the prestige thriller may have driven critics away from what makes the genre enjoyable: the journey.
This is not Gone Girl. There is no sophisticated statement about society and gender. This movie is the film equivalent of a pulpy airport novel (I haven’t read the book, but I imagine that’s exactly what it is). From the start director Tate Taylor (The Help) creates a tense but stylized atmosphere. The film is dreamlike in its editing and composition, encapsulating the lost and wandering nature of the three main characters. At the same time, the film moves forward as if pulled by an unstoppable force. While the majority of the film is played at maximum visual volume, the smaller directorial choices are what actually pulled me in to the experience. And what an experience it was.
Emily Blunt gives a near-perfect performance as Rachel, the titular girl on the train. She pulls us into her lonely self-pitying alcoholism from her opening monologue and is the strongest presence in the film. Whenever she was on-screen, I was enjoying myself. The rest of the cast is significantly weaker (Allison Janney is a bright-spot playing slightly against type) but they carry the material well enough.
The central problem with this thriller is the predictable twist ending. The film goes after a red herring for so long we start to believe it almost might be that simple, which would be disappointing. Or we would believe it, if it weren’t mathematically impossible to ignore who the real killer is. If you can add past the number 3, you’ll know at least part of what’s up well before the movie reveals it to you. This didn’t bother me however, because I found the film intensely engaging regardless. Even once I knew the conclusion, I enjoyed seeing the direction the film took to get there.
The other major complaint I see cited from popular reviewers is that the movie is over-the-top and trashy. I fail to see how this is a criticism. Critics in general are too hard on dramatic films that don’t attempt to be Oscar-worthy. If an action movie has a ridiculous car-chase, they’ll shrug off the unrealistic stunts and praise the movie for going all out. If a film plays the drama to an unrealistic height however, it is dismissed as a soap opera and thrown out of contention. This is a huge mistake. Tate Taylor has created a world in this movie so similar to our own and yet not quite our own. His command of mood and atmosphere has in my opinion been unfairly ignored. Although it will surely be passed over for a multitude of self-important biopics, Taylor’s deft direction is some of the best I’ve seen this year.
The Girl on the Train is an extremely entertaining movie that must be engaged on its own terms. It isn’t a deep character study or some kind of obtuse metaphor. It is a straight-forward thriller full of pulp and melodrama. If Gone Girl is a tasty but hearty vegetable stew, The Girl on the Train is a molten lava cake. There’s no real substance, but it is delicious, which is all anyone could reasonably ask of it, and that’s okay. In fact in this case, it’s very very good.