Thursday, 13 October 2016

The Girl On The Train (2016) - Movie Review

After spending far longer than I was expecting to this year complaining about movie marketing, I finally get to talk about the positives of movie marketing. Specifically, what it is capable of telling studios. The oldest rule in the medium of entertainment is to give the audience what they want, and what we spend our money on confirms that this is a thing we like to see and wouldn’t mind seeing again. It’s the cornerstone for the franchise-heavy filmmaking mindset that Hollywood has made some comfy cash on in recent years (or decades, if we’re being honest).

I say all this because, with only a passing glimpse at this film’s marketing, it is clear that the grease in the production’s gears is the success of David Fincher’s Gone Girl from two years ago. People saw that film in droves, both critics and casuals alike, and I myself would love to see more of that kind of smart and intense thriller. I’ve admitted before to my own fascination with trickery and games of wits, and no film of the last several years did a better job in those two areas than Gone Girl. But that’s where the association gets a little dangerous: This film wants to be seen as another Gone Girl. But is it capable of fulfilling that role? Hell, removed from connections to any other film, is it capable of fulfilling its role as a movie?

The plot: Megan (Haley Bennett), while jogging under a train tunnel one day, has disappeared. Rachel (Emily Blunt), riding on a train nearby, saw what had happened to her. Anna (Rebecca Ferguson), whom hired Megan as a nanny and is married to Rachel’s ex-husband, believes Rachel is not to be trusted. What unfolds between the three of them is a web of lust and deception that may have already claimed one life and could be responsible for another.

This is a very well-casted film. Bennett is assertive to the point of superhuman, giving some surprising depth to one of the better depictions of sex-positivity I’ve seen in a major release. Ferguson is shown as very worn-down by everything going on around her, from Rachel’s behaviour to the implications made to her family in Megan’s disappearance, and she pulls it off without making the mistake of turning placid and just letting the world revolve around her. Blunt, quite frankly, is stunning. Her performance shows a serious understanding of what addiction can make people do and think, and the way she warps it from scene-to-scene along with the conveyed atmosphere is simply masterful. I’m more willing than ever to just call The Huntsman: Winter’s War a one-off.

Justin Theroux as Anna’s current husband Tom is quite good, especially when the film gets him to be more exacerbated, Luke Evans gives probably the best performance of his career, Édgar Ramírez is good as a potential monkey wrench in the overall mystery, Allison Janney is authoritative but still warm as the investigating detective, and Lisa Kudrow as one of Rachel’s friends is very pleasant to watch on screen. Highest points of professional acting careers (Luke Evans/Neil Patrick Harris), turning a usually irritating comedic presence into an enjoyable but still relevant comedic presence (Lisa Kudrow/Tyler Perry); there we go with the Gone Girl comparisons again.

Given how marketing is usually formed after the creative fact, and I’m sure that “adapted from a famed female-written thriller” was a good connecting point, this film’s general aesthetic probably drew on those comparisons as well when it came time to sell the film to the public. This indeed carries a similar visual style to Fincher, using cold cinematography and a muted colour palette to create a feeling of dread in the heart of suburbia. Conceptually, it also uses similar narrative tricks in how it treats the nature of the whodunit. This also makes a point to paint each character as a person onto themselves but also a potential culprit, none more so than its focal character.

However, this story actually goes one-up on Gone Girl’s Nick Dunne by not only having Rachel be a potential unreliable narrator but be unreliable even to herself. The film depicts her alcoholism suitably as a vice, even if it dips into comedy for parts of it like the bathroom scene, and while keeping it on this side of potential exploitation (emotionally, at least) Blunt wields it to convey someone who is afraid of pretty much everyone and none more so than herself. Officially making it real-world-sense possible for literally everyone to be a suspect is a brilliant move on its own, and the performances anchor that to create a real sense of character between them.

Because really, more so than Gone Girl’s war on sexual politics with the media as its bayonet, this is a rumination on sexual politics with the characters themselves as the lens through which it is viewed. Specifically, their relationships to each other. Rather than being adapted by the original author, it was instead written up by Erin Cressida Wilson, best known for turning the novel Bad Behaviour into the shockingly underrated BDSM film Secretary. That previous experience with depicting power dynamics in sexual relationships shows here, as this is ultimately about the potential toxicity that can arise from them. Megan, Rachel and Anna have each been affected by relationships with men, and the results of such couplings range from terrible to slightly-less-terrible.

Calling this film feminist would be to completely ignore how the structure and mindset of the film more accurately mirrors something that should be shown on Lifetime as opposed to Suffragette. Then again, that would be calling this "melodrama", something built on exaggeration and blind pathos; this is no such film. For one, the characters are far more grounded than what might be expected from a soap opera; for another, there is definite meaning to the story and why what happens happens. If we’re sticking to this as a feminist thriller, let’s go full monty with it.

Megan, in her sexually liberated ways, represents second-wave feminism where sex-positivity first started to flower within the movement. Rachel and Anna, in their respective longing for and ambition to return to the “happy domestic life” way of things, represent first-wave feminism when women had to fight in order to be seen as something other than a household possession, something that the both of them are viewed as by some characters. Is this a call to arms that the patriarchy is trying to regress women as far back as it can, trying to undo the impact of 60’s-era feminism so that they can also return to the good old days when women were property? Maybe. Is it a self-sabotaging depiction of how this newer era of feminism should no longer exist, because of all the complications it brings with it, and instead women should indeed regress to the typical housewife role for their own safety? Maybe. Is it an entertaining film? Of course it is, and quite frankly, it shouldn’t need to be a case of taking sides when it comes to subtextual implications. Do I buy into either of these theories? Should I need to in order to review the film properly? Am I finally giving into objectivity to a certain extent by admitting that subtextual interpretation doesn’t make or break a film? Sometimes, the more entertaining questions are the ones where the answer isn’t obvious. I mean, it's compulsive overthinking of subtextual implications that ultimate poisoned Gone Girl for a lot of people, after all.

All in all, even though I have failed to do so throughout the review, forget Gone Girl for the time being. Instead, focus on this well-acted and well-paced thrilling drama about what a relationship, both good and bad, can do to a person. I fail to see this as something that incessantly needs to be compared to Gone Girl, except for purely aesthetic reasons, since it holds up as an entertaining film in its own right. Instead, I see this as the trend beginning to grow and, between the two of them, I’m certainly not opposed to seeing more of it.

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