Friday, October 7, 2016

The Girl on the Train: Runaway directorial excess

The Girl on the Train (2016) • View trailer 
Three stars. Rated R, for violence, nudity, sexual content and profanity

By Derrick Bang


“One more close-up,” I grumble, to Constant Companion, “and I’m gonna throw something through the screen.”

Wanting to help an increasingly confused Scott (Luke Evans), Rachel (Emily Blunt) explains
what she saw one recent morning commute, when she glanced out the train window. But
in truth Rachel isn't certain herself, and this indecision will come back to haunt her.
Truly, by now I can catalog every pore on Emily Blunt’s face. Rarely has a cinematographer been ordered to provide so many tight-tight-tight close-ups, to the serious detriment of his film.

Nor is this the only one of director Tate Taylor’s transgressions. He also relies on lengthy pregnant pauses, as if worried that we viewers are unable to keep up with the story.

Then there’s the matter of the changing first-person narratives, and the frequent flashbacks, all of which are labeled in portentous capital letters (i.e. SIX MONTHS EARLIER). This technique may have worked in Paula Hawkins’ best-selling novel — “the thriller that shocked the world,” the film poster modestly proclaims — but it’s a serious hassle on the big screen.

Employing flashbacks or alternating points of view would have been fine; doing both simultaneously was beyond Taylor’s ability. At times, it’s difficult to determine whether we’re experiencing flashbacks belonging to Rachel, Megan or Anna.

All of which is a shame, because these intrusive directorial tics and hiccups detract from star Emily Blunt’s impressive performance. Her Rachel is a tapestry of disorientation, shame, fear and uncontrolled bursts of fury. Blunt persuasively handles Rachel’s many moods and transformations, making this poor woman, by turns, despicable, vulnerable and heartbreaking.

And by this point in the film, things are beginning to make sense; Rachel’s savage mood swings no longer seem random.

Which, sadly, points to Taylor’s most serious miscalculation. His pacing is so leaden, his extended takes so prolonged, all those pregnant pauses so protracted, that he telegraphs the story’s “big reveal” by giving us too much time to deduce it.

In a nutshell, Taylor has destroyed the suspense present in Hawkins’ book. He made the story boring.


As expected, these seemingly unrelated people and events actually are interconnected, which adds a nice layer of unease to an already provocative storyline. Rachel has disintegrated into near immobility, Blunt delivering another of her many phenomenal scenes, during her shaky first-day attendance at an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting.

No question: Blunt’s mesmerizing performance compensates considerably for the film’s distracting construction.

Haley Bennett works hard to match Blunt’s intensity, but her character lacks credibility. Megan is such a promiscuous narcissist — and such a liar — that we can’t help questioning the revelation she shares with psychiatrist Dr. Abdic (Edgar Ramírez). It’s necessary that we do believe her, as this speaks to Megan’s behavior; unfortunately, Bennett’s performance seems as superficial as Megan herself.

Allison Janney, on the other hand, is terrific in her supporting role as police detective Riley, who is given the uphill challenge of trying to make sense of this bewildering situation. By skeptical raised eyebrow alone, Janney conveys volumes; her terse, no-nonsense questions and comments make Riley even more believably capable. Janney evokes pleasant memories of Kim Dickens’ equally persuasive investigator in Gone Girl.

Rebecca Ferguson’s Anna has emerged as the truly sympathetic victim: a second wife unable to shake the mounting suspicion that her husband is being naïve, when it comes to his ex. Ferguson makes Anna something of a throwback: an uncomplicated, 1950s-style housewife who seems comfortable in this upscale neighborhood. It’s an intriguing interpretation, as it adds to Anna’s aura of unsophisticated vulnerability.

By this point, though, the similarities between Bennett and Ferguson have become distracting; it’s almost as if the stylists and costume designers went out of their way to make these two women look identical.

We can’t help feeling for Justin Theroux’s Tom, forever trying to make the most of an awkward and embarrassing situation. Luke Evans’ Scott, on the other hand, has emerged as an unsettling unknown: His physical presence is intimidating, an impression that cinematographer Charlotte Bruus Christensen heightens with aggressive camera angles.

I don’t care for the development of Dr. Abdic. Psychiatrists who stupidly fall in love with their patients have become a tiresome movie cliché, and although Ramírez seems to shade his character as merely compassionate, and not lustful, he keeps sliding over that fine line.

Getting very tired of all the damn close-ups. Pretty sure I can count all of Blunt’s nose hairs.


Such a clever first act.

Rachel’s daily train rides to and from Manhattan aren’t as random as initially suggested; her journey now seems calculated to pass this bucolic Westchester County neighborhood each morning and evening. She seems inexplicably attached, on some emotional level, to the attractive young blonde (Megan) who spends so much time on her second-floor outdoor balcony: sometimes in a loving embrace with her husband (Scott), but more often staring pensively into the distance, as if burdened by ... something.

Nor is Rachel the average commuter and sketch artist that we assumed; Blunt’s too-careful poise has been exposed as the artifice of a raging alcoholic. This changes everything; the mild antipathy we felt toward her ex, Tom, has shifted to sympathy, even concern. He and his second wife (Anna) have every reason to worry, particularly with their infant child in the mix. Rachel has become unstable, unpredictable and thoroughly unlikable.

Interesting, as well, that Megan and Scott live only a few doors from Tom and Anna ... and that Megan works as an au pair for Anna. Wheels within wheels...

Laura Prepon is nicely understated as Cathy, Rachel’s long-suffering and by now weary roommate: a considerate friend whose generous act — offering Rachel a bedroom for “a few weeks” after the divorce — has stretched far beyond her patience. And yet Cathy tries to remain tolerant, even as Rachel’s behavior spirals further out of control.

Scripter Erin Cressida Wilson does a nice job with the twisty plot’s first little jolt, playing with Rachel’s surprise over what she unexpectedly sees, one morning, while looking out her train window. Blunt deftly conveys Rachel’s initial astonishment, followed by frustrated helplessness, as the train speeds away; it’s a beguiling set-up — the casual voyeur who sees something s/he shouldn’t — exploited earlier in Alfred Hitchcock’s Rear Window, and Brian De Palma’s Body Double.

It’s even more intriguing, of course, because Rachel never is certain if she can trust what she sees, given her tendency toward alcoholic blackouts.

Danny Elfman’s orchestral score is intriguing and mildly mysterious: ostensibly light and lyrical — echoing the Norman Rockwell-esque street that Rachel spies upon, twice each day — but carrying an unsettling melodic undercurrent. Production designer Kevin Thompson clearly had fun assembling this neighborhood, and the interiors of these gorgeous homes (and then contrasting them with Rachel’s chaotic bedroom, with its woefully few personal touches).

Taylor seems abnormally fond of extreme close-ups, and he does his cast no favors by holding so long on their nervous, tense, curious or agitated faces; it’s like he doesn’t trust his actors to sell their roles, and finds it necessary to spoon-feed dramatic moments. It’s a lazy technique favored by the directors of afternoon TV soap operas, and a bewildering choice by the guy who directed and co-scripted the much subtler — and far more successful — film adaptation of Kathryn Stockett’s The Help.

Taylor’s choices here already are distracting; they’ll become full-blown annoying, if they continue.

It’d be a shame, if he ruins this film.

No comments:

Post a Comment