Between the 2016 Presidential election, Hurricanes Matthew & Nicole and the inexplicable success of Issa Rae with HBO’s Insecure I realize you are so busy assessing the damage that you may not have had time to see the new movie of your favorite book of 2015, Paula Hawkins’ The Girl on the Train. I saw that Rotten Tomatoes gave it a shocking splat at 44%. What gives?
Your observation is spot on. I do spend time contemplating how it is far more likely for an emerging screenwriter to be groped by Donald Trump than it is to become an internet cult sensation and handed a premium cable series as is the case for Ms. Rae. (Right time, right place, right message, right demographic. It ain’t rocket science, it’s lightning in a bottle). In between my seasonal preserve canning and frequent trips to the Wine Barn, I did manage to catch a showing of what I had hoped would be my favorite film of the year. In fact I don’t even know why anyone is talking about e-mails or tax loopholes – blah, blah, blah – Emily Blunt is terrific. Unfortunately, the film is not. I don’t think I am overstepping my bounds to say that director Tate Taylor (The Help) and screenwriter Erin Cressida Wilson (Secretary) should be put into their own basket of deplorables for the disservice they did to such luxuriant mommy porn-ready source material.
The problem with The Girl on the Train is its partner in suburban chic chick-lit with “Girl” in the title – Gone Girl, Gillian Flynn’s electric 2012 mystery thriller. (Yes, it was my favorite novel that year). Both books center on the disappearances of beautifully bored icy blonde wives in good-from-afar marriages. As the pages turn and multiple narrators reveal what it is like to be inside these too perfect to be true lives, it is a reminder to the reader that the American dream of suburban bliss can become a nightmare. Especially if you are married to a bitch.
What makes most stories about middle class malaise work is the underlying social commentary. The grass isn’t always greener. We live that now. Upside down mortgages. Unaffordable health care. Student Loan interest rates that prevent a dream trip to Tuscany. Check out the people you went to high school with on Facebook. All those smiling vacation photos of happy families, you know at least one of them is self-medicating. The message in both novels is clear – what lies beneath the facade of Heaven is 3,500 square feet of Hell. And what better way to unleash hell than psychological suspense?
The comparison ends there. Both films are faithful to their sources. However, where Gone Girl gets it right is the underlying context of women’s role in society. The illusion of who girls want to be when they grow up. As satire it is a biting indictment of the root of sociopathy in suburbia. Most women are not Cool Girl. Even Cool Girl is not cool. She’s twisted. Seriously – Amazing Amy is fucked up. And I mean that in the best possible way.
It is exactly what The Girl on the Train did wrong. The films can be described with adjectives like treachery, psychotic and murderous. All desirable for a thriller, but a good sociopath needs more than a few plot twists turned on unreliable narration. This movie doesn’t offer a surprising plot twist. It barely throws in a red herring suspect with the therapist, who we know is not guilty from the jump – so what was the point? A good thriller would have framed him like Flynn did Desi in Gone Girl to either keep us guessing or see who is truly twisted and how.