[Warning: SPOILERS ahead for both The Girl on the Train and Gone Girl.]
The Girl on the Train stars Emily Blunt as Rachel, a woman struggling to deal with the new life her ex-husband, Tom (Justin Theroux), has created for himself with Anna (Rebecca Ferguson). Anna and Tom now have a baby together, and are living in Rachel’s former marital home; a home she now passes each day on her train journey into the city. That journey gives her a clear view into the back of the house and its yard. A couple of doors down lives Megan Hipwell Haley Bennett) and her husband, Scott (Luke Evans). To Rachel, Megan seems to have the perfect lifestyle.
Rachel is a somewhat unreliable narrator. Her divorce resulted from her reliance on alcohol, an addiction that is steadily getting worse. In her stupors, she acts like a person she doesn’t know, and hears through others that she can become abusive. We also learn that she has, before, broken into Anna and Tom’s home, just to be able to hold their baby.
One night, when very inebriated, Rachel gets off the train and walks towards Anna and Tom’s house. She sees a blonde woman walking toward the tunnel that goes under the train tracks and, assuming it is Anna, calls out to her. She then blacks out. When she comes to, she is at home and dealing with a large gash on her head. She can’t remember anything, but it then transpires that Megan Hipwell went missing that night, and her body is found in nearby woods. There are a number of suspects, including Megan’s husband and her psychiatrist - but it is Rachel herself who is arousing the most suspicion. She can remember something; she just can’t work out what.
The Girl on the Train is an adaptation of Paula Hawkins’ bestselling novel, and it has drawn comparisons with another successful book to film adaptation; Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl. While in essence, the plot is not the same, there are many similarities between the two, not least in the way both movies examine the relationships between men and women and, crucially to both of these films, how they lead us to expect the opposite of what actually transpires. Both films fall into the thriller genre, and both contain massive plot twists (more on that in a moment). In Gone Girl, the central character, Nick Dunne (Ben Affleck) becomes the prime suspect in the disappearance of his wife, Amy (Rosamund Pike). She leaves behind a detailed journal, chronicling their time together from when they first met, right up to the time she went missing. The journal reveals that in recent months, Nick has become cold, distant, and at times abusive to her. It also transpires that Nick was having an affair with one of his college students, and that Amy was pregnant when she vanished.
There really can be no other suspect, and the way Nick acts; seemingly indifferent to the distress of the situation and smiling at the press conference, only confirms people’s suspicions. Flashbacks tell us that Nick has treated Amy badly; he is cruel, thoughtless, violent and dismissive of her value as a person. Amy says in her last journal entry “I fear he may kill me” - but it turns out that Amy is playing an elaborate game.
In the most savage act of revenge, Amy has staged her own disappearance, something that has been almost two years in the planning. The level of intricacy is astounding and, while clearly the actions of a deeply disturbed woman, you can see Amy’s motive, as the woman scorned. Nick tells his sister that he had been close to asking Amy for a divorce, but that he felt he couldn’t do it. However, this stems less from guilt and more from the fact that he is financially reliant on her, and she has a vast sum of wealth. Their house, his car, even the bar he owns with his sister, are all in Amy’s name. Seemingly, to Nick, however much he hates Amy, she is worth keeping around. Amy is one smart cookie. She exploits men’s weaknesses to get exactly what she wants. Not only does she frame her own husband for murder, she also lures another man into the dangerous game she is playing. Desi Collings (Neil Patrick Harris) had been Amy’s boyfriend in High School. He has become obsessed by her, even though she tried to ruin his life by having him charged with harassment. Despite this, when Amy is robbed and left with nothing, she contacts Desi. He arrives quickly, and takes her to his lake house but Amy discovers she is now a virtual prisoner. Using Desi’s obsession, she lures him to bed and, in the middle of sex, brutally murders him.
Suddenly, Amy is free to return to Nick as the miracle discovery. She claims Desi violated her; she has the semen and the (self-inflicted) wounds to prove it. She’s staged careful poses in front of the CCTV at his house that makes it look like he kept her bound and gagged while he raped her, so of course the murder was self-defense. Nick knows what’s up, though, and yet he still takes her back, even when she admits it all to him. Why?
Well, in short, their relationship is entirely skewed; Nick wants the carefully stage managed marriage that Amy is wanting to portray. He knows how dangerous she is, knows he will spend his life sleeping with one eye open, as it were, but the alternative is to walk away and look like the cruel, uncaring man once more. Their treatment of each other is appalling, and, really, one can’t help but think they both end up with what they deserve.
The Girl on the Train also uses dysfunctional relationships to contribute to its massive plot twist. Firstly, the relationship between Megan and Scott, told through flashbacks, leads us to believe that if Rachel wasn’t responsible for Megan’s murder, then he most certainly was. He’s emotionally manipulative; demanding access to Megan’s emails and texts and also demanding sex in a way that degrades and humiliates her. Because of her traumatic past (she had a baby and fell asleep in the bath holding her, thereby drowning her), Megan clings to those who show her emotion and is convinced that Scott’s treatment of her is no more than she deserves. She also seeks affection from her psychiatrist, which wrongly convinces Rachel the pair have been having an affair, and from Tom. For a time, Megan works as a nanny to Tom and Anna’s baby, while carrying on an affair with Tom unbeknownst to everyone.
Then there’s Tom’s relationships both with Anna and Rachel. To the outside world, Tom is a thoughtful and considerate husband to Anna, and we as an audience pity him having to deal with a drunk ex all the time. We are sympathetic to his plight and for a good two thirds of the film we are angry at the way Rachel has treated him in the past. We don’t blame him for having an affair with Anna and leaving Rachel to start a new life with her. We see flashbacks of a drunk Rachel causing a scene at his works barbecue; yelling and smashing a plate. We see her smashing a mirror with Tom’s golf clubs, or staggering off down the street. We see it, and we buy it, because this is the woman who lost her job a year ago but still goes to ‘work’ in the city each day to hide the fact that she sits drinking in a park. We distrust her, especially when she blacks out and can’t remember what she did after seeing Anna in the tunnel the night Megan was murdered.
Only, as it turns out, Tom is the biggest abuser and manipulator of them all. He plays all three women as if they were puppets on a string and he the master puppeteer. The affair with Megan amounted to nothing more than sex for him, as is evident when she tells him she is pregnant and there’s a chance it might be his. He keeps Anna under his control by claiming Rachel is harassing them and calling the house; though the reality is that it might also be Megan. By instilling fear in Anna about Rachel’s mental health, he ensures his affair remains secret and Anna stays just where he wants her; the dutiful wife at home with the baby.
Determined to make a fresh start, Rachel tries to give up drinking and apologizes to Tom’s ex-boss for the scene she caused at the party. The boss tells her she didn’t cause a scene at all, and that Tom was fired because of all his affairs with co-workers. It then becomes apparent that Tom manipulated Rachel by putting incidents into her head that never actually happened; it was he who smashed the house with golf clubs, and he who pushed her over in the street. Eventually piecing everything together, Rachel confronts Tom, who admits he murdered Megan. He tries to kill Rachel too, only she manages to stab him in the throat with a corkscrew, and it is Anna who gives it the final, life-ending twist.
The Girl on the Train focuses on three emotionally vulnerable but inherently strong women. It’s a sad ending for Megan, because with the right help in life she could have overcome her past, but instead she was subjected to endless abuse at the hands of the different men in her life. Rachel has lost years through alcoholism; an illness that could have been helped sooner or even avoided altogether had she not met Tom and been under his command. Anna thinks she has it all; the perfect life she dreamed of, only she soon discovers that the age old adage might just be true; if the other woman becomes the wife, the other woman must be replaced. She doesn’t dig deep, doesn’t question until it’s almost too late.
Part of what makes these movies so great for fans of these respective source material is undoubtedly their faithfulness to the novels that preceded them. Both Flynn and Hawkins rely upon the fact that readers and now, viewers, will make assumptions based upon appearance and society’s conditioning. We automatically assume that slim, blond, pretty Amy Dunne must be a victim at the hands of her brooding, dark-haired, emotionally cold husband. We think Megan Hipwell is a bit of a loose woman, that Rachel is drunk and hell-bent on revenge, and has killed the wrong woman in a moment of madness, or that Megan’s husband has finally completely lost it with her. We don’t for one second think that Tom; nice, loving, poor Tom who has the ex-wife from hell, could possibly have murdered anyone.
It’s very hard to get a plot twist right, and to succeed in fooling people. Most of the time you’ll hear an audience exclaim after watching a movie that they “saw it coming a mile off,” or “guessed it just before it was revealed.” It’s hard to see how anyone could guess the twist in these movies, unless they’ve already read the books. With Gone Girl it comes out of left field when we suddenly cut to a scene of Amy driving. With The Girl on the Train it’s more of a slow build; we begin to doubt, we start to question and then, finally, we see it for itself.
Is The Girl on the Train this year’s Gone Girl? Well, no. They both stand on their own as films and feature stunning performances by women in leading roles. There are undoubtedly similarities, but the plotlines and devices used to tell the story are different enough to create noticeably different films within the same genre.
The Girl on the Train is now playing in theaters.