“The Girl on the Train”: stalking, voyeurism and fantasy turn into an old-fashioned potboiler

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Name: The Girl on the Train
Director, writer:  Tate Taylor, novel by Paula Hawkins
Released:  2016
Format:  1.85:1
When and how viewed:  Angelika Mosaic, 2016/10/7, mid afternoon, light attendance
Length 112
Rating R
Companies: Dreamworks, Universal
Link: official

The Girl on the Train”, directed by Tate Taylor, adapted by Erin Cressida Wilson from the novel by Paula Hawkins, heavily promoted in previews and television ads, seemed tantalizing to me at first because it seemed to focus on fantasy.  A girl Rachel (Emily Blunt) rides a Hudson River commuter train every day and becomes fascinated with a woman, and her apparent marriage or life, in a home a few addresses away from her old place.

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That could be a fascinating mystery of upward affiliation.  But soon we learn of a web of troubled, basically unadmirable characters and entanglements.  The movie is told largely in flashbacks of Rebecca, but also in two other female characters, so there is a question of the cleanliness of the “omniscient observer”.

We learn of her alcoholism, which led to her being fired from a public relations job in New York, which she pretends she has anyway. We also learn of her divorce from Tom (Justin Theroux), who kicked her out to live in her old mansion with a new bride, Anna (Rebecca Ferguson).  Soon there’s a convenient plot coincidence: Anna works as a nanny for Megan (Haley Bennett) in the mystery house; Megan is married to Scott (Luke Evans).

The movie seems like it should be an exploration of voyeurism and stalking, maybe unwelcome flirting. But soon Megan is missing, and a detective (Allison Janey) is asking Rebecca questions and warning her to stop the stalking. Psychologically, this sounds like familiar territory.

Pretty soon we’re back into potboiler mystery territory (remember “Gone Girl”) and the trouble is to many of the other characters are, at best, examples of narcissistic personality disorder (especially Tom)  There’s a line about an unwanted pregnancy: “Get rid of it!”  Tom wants heterosexual mating without the baggage of propagating his genes like a real alpha male.

The film is shot up close, in traditional 1.85:1, with the trains making for a Hitchcock-like background.

The book, and movie, appeal for a mass audience by presenting aggressive, sexually self-serving characters and steamy fantasies of romance, although the film is no match for “Body Heat” (1980).  It’s possible to make mystery about sexual or erotic fantasy more subtle, which I’ve tried to do in my own screenplays – and I run into the problem that I need to present how the other characters (not just “me”) got there.

(Published: Friday, October 7, 2016 at 7:30 PM EDT)