The Savage, Hungry Beauty of ‘The Girl on the Train’
Warning: if you haven’t seen the film or read the book, the following contains a heavy dose of spoilers.
I couldn’t look away, those first moments of The Girl On the Train. Emily Blunt’s smudged eyeliner, outlining a naked nameless hunger, stole my attention and wouldn’t let go. But the film’s triumph isn’t in the stilted story (and lacklustre thriller) being told on screen — it’s in the moments in between the narrative stumbles.
The Girl on the Train stands next to 1944’s Gaslight, throws a match on it, and dances with glee as it incinerates three women in their suburban exiles. The trio of withered women — Rachel, Megan, and Anna — are gaunt spectres, haunted by fractured beginnings (of marriages, mostly) and futile endings (of marriages, mostly). Their stories appear disparate at first, disconnected from one another, until Rachel’s eyes drift to her old house, glimpsing Anna with a baby in her arms. Mere months before, Anna had sold that home to Rachel and her now ex-husband. Megan, the pretty blonde from down the street, is their nanny.
It’s the middle of the end that creates the story’s beginning, with Emily Blunt’s character, Rachel, indulging her voyeuristic tendencies on the train. Gazing out the window as the houses go by, Rachel glimpses a beautiful blonde woman and her husband in their manicured backyard, and imagines a perfect life for them as she sketches them in her dayplanner. Her charcoal daydreams create that day’s version of reality. But she recognizes this. She knows that tomorrow, the pretty blonde will have a new name and a new identity. It isn’t the reality that continues to draw Rachel’s attention, it’s the echo of her old life in those stolen moments from the train-tracks.
Rachel’s tangled mess is a life that escapism built. And no, I don’t mean that she’s out crushing WoW raids every night until three in the morning. She watches her old neighbourhood, sketches her fantasies, and drinks. It’s not New York drinking, either. It’s not a martini after work and a glass of wine at home. It’s a tiny bottle of vodka in her purse and a slurred cooing at a woman and her toddler that unearth the real problem: alcoholism.
It’s her addiction that creates the perfect storm for Bad Things To Happen. At first, Rachel’s fantasy about the blissfully married couple (Megan and her husband) is creepy, but non-threatening. As soon as the gorgeous blonde strays, and stray she does, Rachel’s fury knows no bounds. A different man intimately embracing Megan on that perfect patio brutally fractures the fantasy. Rachel loses her cool and snaps in a way that she hadn’t when she found out that her ex-husband had cheated on her… with Anna.
Rachel’s alcoholism and blinding rage spur her to make a series of Very Bad Decisions, after which “Perfect” Megan goes missing. Rachel wakes up covered in blood, missing the entirety of the night before. And then, Megan’s decomposing body is found under a pile of leaves in the woods.
The story devolves into a series of boring gotchas and macguffins for a time, until I began to pay attention to those in-between moments, where the real stories are.
Escapism & (Lack of) Control
Suburban wives must seem like they have nothing to escape from. They’re safely sequestered from the buzz of the big city, nestled in the country in their million dollar homes. They made the escape, already.
But they’re in mourning, these women. It’s not about the death of a person. It’s about the abrupt and vicious end of a story. Rachel mourns for the story of her past life, safe and loved in her impeccably decorated home with her impeccably stylish husband. Megan mourns for the story of what her life currently is, trapped in an emotionally abusive relationship. And Anna mourns for the loss of whatever her story could have been, much as most new mothers lament their past and future selves in the throes of early parenthood.
So, they escape. They escape into a bottle — just a little bit more to sleep, that’s all. They escape into sex, in order to exercise control over the men who seek to dominate them. They escape into parochial, faux-archetypal motherhood. For Rachel, Anna, and Megan, the escape is about exerting control. Their lives are so dominated by the men in them (yes, even Rachel’s) that the alcoholism, sex, and perfectionism are the only avenues of control available to them.
Crazy Women & Gaslighting
Rachel’s alcoholism is presented in a light that paints her as Megan’s murderer early on. Which, as I know from watching too many procedural cop dramas, is only meant to distract me from who the real murderer is. Cue the ominous music.
It makes her a top-shelf victim for a narcissist’s dress rehearsal in gaslighting. All of those nights where she blacked out and couldn’t remember what she’d said or done, he’d remind her. But those memories felt far away. “I wake up and when someone tells me what I’ve done, it just doesn’t feel like me or like something I would do,” Rachel says to her therapist. “I feel bad about it, but it’s like it’s so far removed that I have a… I just don’t feel bad enough.” She’d woven an internal narrative that made her believe that she was capable of horribly violent things, that the reason why her husband left her was because she was a violent alcoholic who was prone to fits of rage.
But, no. Rachel’s blackouts were the perfect place for Tom, her ex-husband, to get his hooks in and manipulate her into believing that she was an awful person. A chance encounter gives Rachel the power to discern the real events from manipulated memories. As Rachel unearths the truth, we see the real monster: the impeccably dressed man down the street who thinks he has everyone fooled. Until he doesn’t.
As his pinnacle line of dialogue in the film, Tom mutters, “Crazy women,” as he and Megan walk through the woods together after Rachel confronts Megan. But these “crazy women” reclaim their power in a big way.
Suburban Savagery & Reclaiming Power
Megan savages Tom with cutting remarks about his impotence and lack of identity without the women he manipulates. It’s that savagery that acts as the gateway to Rachel and Anna retaking their surrendered power. Her murder at Tom’s hands as retribution for her biting words becomes their catalyst. It emboldens Rachel. It shakes Anna out of her baby-induced reverie. That savagery is contagious and Tom knows it, paying for it with his life.
As the film draws to a close, Tom compares Rachel to an abused dog who just doesn’t know when to stay away. If only she stayed away that night. If only she’d minded her own business, then Megan wouldn’t have had to die.
“In a way, you killed her,” Tom says.
Old Rachel, the alcoholic on the train fantasizing about a life once lived, might have agreed. She was far easier to manipulate while drunk; she had spent a good chunk of the film believing that she was the one who’d killed Megan, after all. But not this time.
“No, you did,” she responds, still bleeding on the kitchen floor after being struck by her ex-husband.
These final moments, where Emily’s Blunt’s masterful performance transforms Rachel into the ferocious woman she needs to be, are where the film shines. It’s the culmination of far too much exposition and a meandering plot that needed a bit of polish. But for a collection of moments, it doesn’t matter. The train can stop chuffing up and down the coast for a quick sec. We’re here. We’ve arrived at the only end it could be.
As the two surviving women determine, they’re bound together in their grief, rage, and pain. Rachel’s triumphant, though horrific, self defense is the last piece of the wall that separates the women. And as Anna twists the corkscrew, fully reclaiming her surrendered self, I know that that’s the end of their escapism. It doesn’t undo the animosity between them, of course, but this shared moment bonds them, regardless.
The Girl on the Train is a story of escapism, domination, subjugation, power struggles, and ultimately, vindication. The trio of women individually prove that their relationships can’t lock them in cages forever. Unfortunately for Megan, she pays for that ferocious discovery with her life. If nothing else, The Girl on the Train demonstrates the importance of watching and listening.