According to Universal’s promotional materials, The Girl on the Train is based on “the thriller that shocked the world.” High expectations! If the book version of The Girl on the Train shocked the world, then you might think the film version should be equally, if not more, shocking. It’s just math. So is it?
Spoilers for The Girl on the Train below.
Unfortunately, no — the main twist in the movie is about as shocking as an actual ride on Metro North.
The film centers on the disappearance of Megan, a woman that Emily Blunt’s Rachel sees every morning on her ride into New York City. Megan, played with Jennifer Lawrenceian Jennifer Lawrenceness by Haley Bennett, represents the idealized life that Rachel could have had, had she not been an alcoholic. To make matters worse, Megan lives only a few doors down from Rachel’s ex, Justin Theroux’s Tom, who is now married to Anna (Rebecca Ferguson), the woman he cheated on Rachel with. On the morning of Megan’s disappearance, Rachel notices Megan canoodling not with her husband Scott (Luke Evans), but with her therapist Dr. Kamal Abdic (Edgar Ramirez). It’s enough to send Rachel on a martini-fueled bender; when she wakes up from her blackout, Megan is gone. Mystery established!
The Girl on the Train quickly sets up three main suspects in Megan’s disappearance: Scott, who has a motive and a temper; Dr. Abdic, who is a psychiatrist, and psychiatrists are always suspects; and Rachel, whose memory of the night is spotty. Did she murder Megan in an alcoholic rage?
It’s pretty clear that she didn’t, not only because Rachel is played by Emily Blunt, but also because it is so, so obvious that Tom killed Megan. We get our first clue early on, when Megan quits her job babysitting for Tom and Anna’s kid for no reason — unless Girl on the Train was really interested in the vagaries of child care (it’s not), there must be some hidden psychosexual drama going on. Furthermore, Roger Ebert’s Law of Economy of Characters points another finger towards him: If Tom wasn’t the bad guy, then he wouldn’t be a character that a talented actor like Justin Theroux would want to play.
But no matter how telegraphed the film’s ending is, there’s still a twist. But it’s a different kind of twist — a literal twist. As grown adults who recognize narrative structure, when we come to Rachel and Tom’s big confrontation at the end, we’re prepared for Rachel to do something to win the day. What we are not prepared for is for Rachel to plunge a corkscrew into Tom’s neck like she’s opening an affordable, yet nuanced, bottle of Cabernet.
And despite having seen Rachel use the corkscrew as a weapon, we are still not unprepared for what happens next, when Anna leans in and twists the corkscrew, opening the neck of her husband as if she’s opening an affordable, yet nuanced, bottle of Cabernet.
“That’s the real twist,” my colleague Kyle Buchanan said after we left the movie, and I agree. But I agree for reasons beyond just the pun (which, to be fair, is a great pun). In that moment, we see the culmination of a strange thread running through The Girl on the Train — its surprising gruesomeness. By the time we’ve gotten to Anna’s fateful turn of the wrist, we’ve already seen a woman get her head smashed in with a rock, witnessed the implied drowning death of an infant, and sat through numerous visions of Rachel pulling Megan’s hair and slamming her into the ground.
For a middlebrow thriller, The Girl on the Train leans heavily into the specter of violence that seems to exist within seemingly respectable Lands’ End homes. This is hardly new territory — in fact, it’s among the oldest territories in American cinema — but it belies the suggestion that the filmmakers are far more interested in the capacity for murder possessed by every human being, than in which particular human being dunnit this time. If The Girl on the Train is about anything other than covert day-drinking and Westchester living rooms, it’s about that. This is a violent movie that doesn’t seem to realize how violent it is.