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Girl on the Train - Film Review

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by Emu Byron (subscribe)
writer in English, French and Spanish with published credits available in government publications, local and ethnic media. I live in Sydney.
Published October 26th 2016

Please note: This review contains spoilers

Director Tate Taylor's (and Scriptwriter Erin Cressida Wilson's) "Girl on the Train" (based on the Paula Hawkins best seller) ought to have been titled "Girl on a Journey to Nowhere", except that for Rachel Watson (played by Emily Blunt, The Devil Wears Prada), "the journey" is a journey out of "the journey to nowhere" (in spite of herself, we add).

Never since Federico Lorca's "Yerma" (meaning 'barren' in the original Spanish) has the failure to produce a baby had such a devastating impact on a lead female protagonist, though here, not for the same laudable reasons.

That is because Taylor and Wilson have given us a film so 'noir' (in the genre 'noir') that only the expandability, or alternatively, the commodification, of babies, can portray the depth of depravity and despair from which the story of the girl (on the train) is one of redemption - but only just.

In Lorca's play, procreation was the prelude to progeny, a matter of (feminine) ideo-romantic 'natur philosophie", against which was contrasted Yerma's husband's pedestrian (i.e.: male) predisposition to pursue procreation without consequences (very Sancho Panza to stick within literary Spanish archetypes).

Here, the production of babies is a more Faustian matter of appearances; one wants a baby in the same way that one wants a Volvo and a swanky house and a sexy wife in the neo-liberal suburbs of New York and Manhattan (it is no coincidence that the filming location was moved from London to New York); it is just one more of the necessary trappings of (the appearance of) contemporary Neo-Liberal success, the icing on the cake you might call it.

It follows that one pursues promiscuity with exactly the same consumerist ardour. Thus, Rachel's failure to produce the baby, in addition to her husband Tom's (Watson, played by Justin Theroux) 'inability to keep his dick in his pants', results in Rachel's life being transferred in toto, to Anna Boyd (cum Anna Watson, played by Rebecca Ferguson), who produces the baby, while Rachel herself is left suspended in an alcoholic limbo, commuting daily on the train to nowhere of her obsessive thoughts - about her past and the life she believes she is missing out on, symbolized by her daily commuting past her former house and next door neighbour's home, respectively at No's 15 and 13 Beckett Street, which she ogles from the train, not with the intrusive stares of a voyeur, as has been asserted, but with the invidious, wistful gaze of a seeker after asylum from banishment.

Later, when the same infidelity from Tom's part, this time done to Anna, results in the pregnancy of the next door neighbor's wife, at No 13, Megan Hipwell (and her cuckold husband Scott, respectively played by Haley Bennett and Luke Evans), who is employed as a nanny to mind the new-born (there is an irony here but it is of the throwaway kind), the very different attitude projected towards this impregnation will result in events central to the further damning and redemption of Rachel Watson, but we are not giving away anything here.

What is clear is that the inability to yield 'the product' is the factor behind Tom's rejection of Rachel, and not her alcoholism, the history of which is not important to the development of the character, but whose factual reality is crucial both to the story and to the character; for two reasons: (1) because it makes Rachel's vulnerability part of the malleable realities and appearances manipulated by Tom Watson (as the progression of the movie will render absolutely clear) and (2) because as the medium of emotional and psychological pain, and of the absolute lack of any belief in herself , Rachel's alcoholism is the only factor of transcendence in a story told about a world totally void of values, or marred by so many anti-values.

Even so, this needs must be understood, and not just by the audience, let alone by the critic, but by the characters themselves specially: that in a world sadly void of any values, Rachel's alcoholism and trauma are in fact the inverted image of the values she believes to exist at No's 15 and 13 Beckett Street, respectively, but which we, as the audience, know damn well do not.

Therein the peculiar difficulty and hope of this movie reaching its audience (and critics): that it is not just a 'noir' psycho-thriller about deception and about self-deception in particular, but that it is further compounded by the narratorial voice-over technique frequently employed by 'film noir', which in this case happens to be multiple, and which is in fact a literary technique known as 'multiple focalization' ; a situation whereby any hope of an omniscient narrator, narrating in the third person and not omitting anything, goes awol, leaving the spectator to wonder about the meaning of the story-telling-mess left behind by severally and predictably unreliable reports on same events (the story) told from different points of view.

It is no spoiler to warn that of the three narratorial voices which constitute this offering, that of the main protagonist, the girl on the train, is not necessarily the most unreliable, for she is a consummate alcoholic, bordering on delirium tremens, but what makes a narrator's voice reliable or unreliable is not whether they're stoned or drunk, but how well they know themselves, or how honest they are prepared to be with themselves. The only thing Rachel knows for sure is that she doesn't know, which paradoxically, provides the hope that the journey to nowhere may turn out to be a journey out of that journey.

This is a factor that is either missed or passed over by critics, who complain that 'the web of narrator switches seems clogged', or that the director 'is obliged to make the convoluted plot comprehensible'. Maybe, but an audience, no less than a critic, gets out of a film what they bring to it, and thus forewarned, this is a film with much food for thought to offer viewers.

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