Though it ultimately unravels in a predictable ways, resorting to standard thriller tropes to sustain its narrative, The Girl on the Train remains compelling throughout. Though it oscillates in time and between various strands, the main focus is Rachel (Emily Blunt), a single woman who travels by rail to New York every day for work. It just so happens that her train line passes by her old street where she’s afforded expansive views of her former home and her ex-husband Tom (Justin Theroux) who now lives with Anna (Rebecca Ferguson).
Just a couple of doors along, there’s the couple’s babysitter Megan (Haley Bennett) whose seemingly idyllic existence is the rabid focus of Rachel’s daydreams of a return to happier days. Then one day she notices Megan on the balcony of her house in the embrace a man other than her husband Scott (Luke Evans) just before she goes missing.
Rachel, battling alcoholism amongst other internal demons is sucked into a whirlpool of confusion as she attempts to insert herself into the drama. Simultaneously, she can’t be sure of anyone’s reality, especially her own, not with fractured memories rising to the surface to haunt her. But are these memories genuine or just a concoction of her troubled, slowly disintegrating mind? Her behaviour becomes increasingly erratic and events are presented in such a way as to make them as ambiguous as possible, deepening the mystery of Megan’s vanishing and who exactly has played a role in proceedings.
Certainly, you can pick the film to pieces for its diminishing credibility, fall back on clichéd thriller elements and hackneyed plot deviations, however two things greatly distinguish it. Firstly, there’s Emily Blunt’s simply astonishing performance. We witness her channeling an array of bleak emotional colours in her riveting portrayal of Rachel; the woman’s psychological disarray is captured with genuinely unnerving intensity at times. Tate Taylor’s direction is excellent too; he’s acutely aware this isn’t a dazzlingly original or profound screenplay but he take interesting chances visually, directing the film with an impressive assuredness and invention. Wisely, he makes the most of Blunt’s gifts by very frequently allowing us distressingly close-up coverage of her expressive face and Rachel’s damaged psyche.
Based on Paula Hawkins’s stupendously best-selling novel, The Girl on the Train obviously has a guaranteed built-in audience curious to see if this latest breakout crime thriller has been as successfully adapted for the big screen as Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl which landed in the hands of director David Fincher in 2014. It has resonant themes placed in palatable contexts, like those dangerous perversions that flourish behind the curtains in middle-class suburbia. And even if none of the other performers can come close to matching Blunt’s formidable range, this is definitely a commute worth undertaking.
The macabre opening to Denis Villeneuve’s Sicario (2015) establishes a grim, unsettling mood that will overwhelm the life of the young FBI agent leading the investigation. Still recoiling from the grisly find and images burned into her consciousness, Kate Macer (Emily Blunt) is specifically targeted for a new assignment under the care of task force leader Matt (Josh Brolin). Head still spinning she’s recruited to assist in the agency’s bloody, never ending battle with the Mexican drug cartels. Hovering close by at all times is Alejandro (Benicio Del Toro), his mostly silent, disconcerting presence barely acknowledged, and his status never qualified.
The world Kate becomes immersed in is confusing and disorienting. We see everything through her eyes and so must surrender to her distorted perspective through which motives are unspecified. She probes tentatively, intimidated by her junior status, but we share her sense of the truth being camouflaged behind the blurred lines of an indefinable moral code or method of operation. All her new cohorts are strangers – and male too, only exacerbating the alienation of her inclusion amongst their ranks.
Will the true nature Kate’s role resolve itself in tandem with clues to the bigger picture? Or is she merely a pawn in some strange, systematic manipulation from on high? For a long time Villenueve and his screenwriter Taylor Sheridan keep the horizon darkened with a range of potential outcomes. The set pieces are genuinely tense and superbly handled. In between, stillness is as vital a part of their storytelling means as chaotic motion. The suspense is stretched taut, creating a void of expectation, an immobility pregnant with possibilities.
The wavering figure in the margins, Alejandro, is an intimidating, mysterious figure whose past and present are being reconfigured in some vaguely illegitimate way it seems to Kate. Given half a chance to glower and speak without ever using words, Del Toro naturally exudes an impenetrability that can be as frustrating as it is magnetic. Blunt continues to bloom as an actress regardless of genre. This is a physically demanding role but full of grit and she makes Kate believable on every level. Brolin is strong too; Matt’s ambiguity makes him another fascinating figure, either a bastard conniving success to sweeten his own slice of the pie or a hard taskmaster protecting his taskforce’s most unlikely valuable asset. Another real asset is the animalistic menace of Johann Johannsson’s score which is used to brilliant effect in the set-pieces especially.
This is another superb addition to Villenueve’s impressive body of work. The French-Canadian director won international acclaim for his harrowing drama Incendies back in 2010. More recently he’s worked at an unflagging pace, delivering the gripping Prisoners (2013) and the equally compelling, creepily intimate Enemy (2013) in quick succession. With Sicario, his reputation as a meticulous craftsman is only enhanced. Though this is more about the truths between the lines and the machinations of a morally recast world of crime detection than deep characterisation, there’s genuine mastery in his handling of all the elements.