The Girl on the Train: How a Mediocre Mystery-Thriller plays with its Audience

*WARNING: CONTAINS MAJOR SPOILERS*

Every person out there, every day, performs many roles. Some are given to us at birth, (child, sibling, cousin) while others have to be learned with the passage of time (friend, lover, employee). Each role has its own prerequisites to be met, and creates different expectations. As members of a society, we think in neat boxes and have been taught to have certain preconceptions about what it means to be this or that. In Megan Hipwell’s (Haley Bennett) statement: “so far I’ve been a rebellious teenager, lover, waitress, gallery director, nanny and a whore” from Tate Taylor’s film The Girl on the Train (2016) we see exactly that. Being a mystery-thriller, the film revolves around Megan’s disappearance and later on the mystery evolves into a hunt to catch her killer. The film follows three different female points of view or three different sets of puzzle pieces, which the audience has to put together to solve Megan’s murder case. In fact, the film uses fixed western understandings of certain labels that exist in opposite extremes on the superficial level to hide the killer’s identity.

It is worth noting that although the film itself is rather mediocre, its female representation is very intriguing. When the film starts, Rachel Watson (Emily Blunt) feels lost and suspended in time as her addiction to alcohol takes hold of her life. Rachel’s first label, therefore, is ‘alcoholic,’ which in turn renders her unreliable. Unemployed for over a year, but still pretending to go to work every morning, Rachel rides in trains and has developed a habit of looking into the lives of a couple, Megan and Scott Hipwell, (Luke Evans) that she doesn’t know personally. This habit becomes a voyeuristic obsession; an obsession that makes the audience uncomfortable or even judgemental. After all, Rachel creates a fantasy world of a perfect couple because she’s overcompensating for what she lost. Considering that Scott and Megan live next to Rachel’s ex husband, these make-believe scenarios of marital bliss are supposedly mirroring her life with Tom Watson (Justin Theroux) prior to their divorce. Stuck in an idealized and therefore unrealistic past, Rachel hasn’t moved on; she has even kept her ex husband’s surname because she still identifies with the role ‘wife of Tom Watson.’ Rachel’s fixation with this role, especially since it has been recast by Anna Watson, (Rebecca Fergusson) gives her yet another label: ‘pathetic;’ the audience pities Rachel, but there is also a sense of assigning blame. On the one hand, Rachel is filled with guilt as she holds herself responsible for her failed marriage not only because of her drinking, but also because of her addiction’s cause, namely her inability to have children. On the other, the audience is restrained from empathizing with her because the film argues that two years after a divorce is an inappropriate amount of time to be experiencing such extreme fits of rage.

The audience’s lack of empathy is based on the characters’ lack of empathy, and this is where the film becomes interesting; Rachel, as an addict, is not treated as a person that needs help, but as a nuisance. Throughout the film, Rachel is characterized as “Tom’s crazy ex-wife,” “a sad liar with no life,” and “possibly mentally unstable” all of which are offensive and somehow connect with her drinking problem. Even if Rachel’s insistence to infiltrate herself into the investigation of Megan’s death creates a lot of problems, mainly for Scott, this does not justify such a disrespectful verbal abuse. But, it is integral to the film’s genre. Rachel has to be portrayed as an unstable alcoholic, so that the ending’s twist, that is the discovery that Tom was having an affair with Megan and then killed her, is at least somewhat unexpected. In this way, the audience partakes in Rachel’s abuse. The longer the viewer is blind to Tom’s violent side, the longer Rachel cannot escape the label “crazy ex-wife” because these two identities are inseparable. As the film’s plot unravels, the audience can begin to comprehend this dependency. Specifically, Rachel’s addiction has caused her blackouts. Gaps in memory over a long period of time lead to a fractured sense of self. With all that in mind, filling the gaps based on Tom’s truth leads to the formation of an identity that fits his narrative; the narrative in which he is the victimized husband and Rachel is the violently deranged wife. Essentially, Rachel is driven into a self-destructing path for no other reason other than Tom playing mind games to win a power play that was never there until he initiated it.

Significantly, Rachel’s instability and Tom’s innocence are reinforced by the portrayal of Anna Watson, the loving mother of Tom’s daughter Evie. Being labeled as a ‘mother,’ and notably an affectionate mother, Anna is depicted in a way that Rachel can never be. The audience, therefore, empathizes with Anna whenever she feels threatened by Rachel because protecting a child is a natural instinct in everyone. Although Anna seems somewhat overwhelmed by her role as a mother at times, there is no denying that she loves her daughter. So, for a great part of the film, Tom seems to have it all in his new life, and therefore is not a suspect in Megan’s murder case; there is no reason for him to have done it.

While at first glance the Watsons seem a happy family, underneath it all one can distinguish a lot of unhealthy details. Anna hates the house because Rachel and Tom used to live there together. Tom subtly forces Anna to live there and therefore creates another hidden power play, which he simultaneously wins. Other than Tom’s true self, the next discovery that is surprising about the Watsons is Anna’s confession that she “misses being the other woman.” In truth, Anna misses the role of an ‘irresistible woman;’ the woman that is such a great temptation that she has never heard the word no. In other words, Anna misses that sense of power and invincibility. The roles of motherhood and wife can’t give her that, and Anna still yearns for that type of dominance over Rachel. It is as if she doesn’t understand who she is unless she can define herself as better than her husband’s ex-wife. Accordingly, instead of being alarmed when Rachel claims that Tom’s whole life is built on lies, Anna responds “I know he’s a good liar, we went behind your back for months.” In these moments, Anna’s portrayal as the caring and loving wife and mother breaks. In this way, while Rachel is gradually becoming more likeable in the audience’s eyes, Anna’s appeal is slowly fading. As this shift occurs, Tom fits the murderer’s profile better until it is clear that he is guilty.

The truth was hiding in plain sight, behind the veil of stereotypical labels. It should be noted that Rachel’s emotional suffering matches that of Paula Alquist (Ingrid Bergman) from George Cukor’s Gaslight (1944) since both women are led to borderline insanity by their husbands. For Rachel, in particular, these past few years have been nothing else but shameful. Appalled by herself, Rachel admits in an AA meeting that as an addict “you just have to say you’re sorry for what you did and you’re sorry for who you are.” Both Rachel and the audience have internalized the idea of Rachel as ‘unstable,’ ‘pathetic,’ ‘crazy’ that Tom has shaped for her and that is why she feels she owes an apology. Conversely, Paula owes nothing because the audience never doubts her innocence. This main difference between the two women is proof enough that the viewer partakes in the abuse of the one, but not the other.

 

by Ioanna Micha

Ioanna is an English and American literature graduate from Greece. Other than her love of cats, Ioanna discovered her love of films around the age of 12 and has been using people’s taste in film to see if they’re cool ever since. Torn between her fascination with intellectually stimulating films/TV shows, and her love of all geeky and/or fantasy things, she finds it hard to pinpoint her favorite entertainment media. What follows is a semi-successful (?) attempt: Donnie Darko, anything Harry Potter related, Black Mirror, Lord of the Rings, True Detective, Freaks and Geeks etc.

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