Watching Like a Writer: The Girl on the Train (2016)

Watching Like a Writer is a movie review series that looks at films from the perspective of a fiction writer, complete with one writing takeaway, and an exercise that will help better your fiction! Each Monday I will look at a film currently in theatrical release.

Summary: “The Girl on the Train is based on Paula Hawkins’ bestselling thriller that shocked the world. Rachel (Emily Blunt), devastated by her recent divorce, spends her daily commute fantasizing about the seemingly perfect couple who live in a house that her train passes every day. Everything changes when she sees something shocking happen there, and becomes entangled in the mystery that unfolds.” (via Amazon)

Review: Gone Girl, one of my favorite books and films of the last five years, proved that a story about a flawed, unhinged, even dangerous female protagonist can mean major book sales and big box office. I love stories about women. All women. Good or bad, it doesn’t matter. But I have a particular affection for female characters in film who are volatile, unlikable, damaged, strong, sensational, opportunistic, vulnerable, confident, powerful. In other words… complex!

Death to the actress is the wife who sits at home and answers the phone when her husband calls. As much as I enjoyed Sully, I left the theater sad for Laura Linney. Couldn’t her character have had a little more complexity? It’s why I was overjoyed when something like Gone Girl, which features one of the most fascinating female characters in recent memory, was a massive success. And it’s why I was drawn right from the beginning to The Girl on the Train.

I read the book when it first came out, as did most everyone in America, and although the writing wasn’t on par with Gillian Flynn’s stellar prose, I enjoyed every page. I was taken by the fast pacing, the creative use of multiple POV, and especially the character of Rachel, a woman whose once-promising life has spiraled into depression, alcoholism, and self-destruction.

Now the film has arrived (in record speed, less than two years since the release of the novel!), and I have to report it’s a mixed bag. On the plus side, Emily Blunt is a revelation as Rachel, committing herself to the ugliness and despair of this fascinating character. Whenever Blunt is on screen, the film works. (And Allison Janney, too. Can she be in every movie?)

Unfortunately the other characters and story-lines don’t come alive the way they often did in the book. Haley Bennett and Rebecca Ferguson are fine in their respective roles of Megan and Anna, but the characters in the film never rise above functional chess players of the plot. And the reveal of the killer in the third act is too obvious. It was somewhat less so in the novel, but it’s kind of unmistakable when the story plays out on-screen.

Tate Taylor, who made The Help, is a competent director, but he doesn’t infuse the material with any kind of personal touch or specific tone, the way David Fincher did with Gone Girl. The film is watchable to be sure, but it doesn’t have Gone Girl’s staying power. Emily Blunt’s powerhouse performance will stay with me, one that I think ranks right up there with Rosamund Pike’s, but other elements of the film will likely fade from my memory.

Watching Like a Writer: As a fiction writer I paid much of my attention to the stark portrayal of an extremely damaged woman. My takeaway of this film is to always make my female characters as complex as my male characters, if not more so. What are their dreams, their fears, their weaknesses? What are their dark sides? It’s not enough to have a female protagonist who’s strong and assertive. She also needs to be human, someone who can make a wrong choice and who occasionally stumbles when she wants to succeed. She’s allowed to be messy.

Exercise! Think about how you write your female characters. Write down ideas about what makes them memorable and compelling, and also what can make them tiresome. Share your tips below, and in the Facebook group, Watching Like a Writer!