Friday, November 4, 2016

Phony Feminism: The Girl on the Train

Emily Blunt in The Girl on the Train.

Tate Taylor’s movie The Girl on the Train is awful, but it’s pretty much what the material – the 2015 bestseller by the English (South Africa-born) novelist Paula Hawkins – deserves. It’s a fake-feminist thriller, like Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl, though not quite as loathsome. Flynn’s book is the twisty tale of a vanished wife whose husband is assumed to have murdered her, but for the first half it presents itself, with a hip, up-to-the-minute chic, as the anatomy of a bad marriage. When the material turns around on itself and Amy, the wife, is revealed to be a sociopath who’s manipulated her own disappearance to make the husband look guilty, and thus get revenge on him for cheating on her, Flynn tries to play it both ways – to make Amy the villain the narrative requires while rigging a pitiful portrait of her childhood, when her parents, co-authors of a beloved series of children’s books, used her as the model for their implausibly perfect heroine. Flynn pretends to be commenting on the damage to the psyche of a little girl who’s stuck competing with her own flawless image, just as she pretends to be exposing the gritty reality of a disintegrating modern-American relationship relationship. But Amy’s behavior doesn’t match up convincingly with her backstory, and Flynn has made her such a demon that a backstory is superfluous anyway. It would be like inserting a flashback in Fatal Attraction that showed how her father’s cruelty toward Glenn Close had made her into the psycho who stalks Michael Douglas and boils his little girl’s bunny rabbit. Amy’s monstrousness – like Close’s Alex’s – is so clearly predicated on male terror of aggressive, outsmarting women that the idea of Gone Girl as feminist would be a bad joke if it weren’t so offensive.

David Fincher managed to mute some of the vileness of the story in his 2014 movie version just because he’s such a terrific director. Still, the movie fell on its face. A clever screenwriter who realized what was wrong with the novel might have reconfigured it, but Flynn wrote her own adaptation, so it was doomed from the outset, and as Amy the talented actress Rosamund Pike, who had been so good in Pride and Prejudice and An Education, didn’t have a chance against the conception of her character. (Her performance was so affected that it made me cringe.) Fincher surrounded Pike and Ben Affleck, in the hopeless part of Amy’s husband Nick, with some colorful supporting players like Kim Dickens, Scoot McNairy, Carrie Coon, Patrick Fugit and Tyler Perry, and there was one hilarious moment when Perry, as Nick’s lawyer, pronouncing with amazement that his is one fucked-up marriage, suggested how the material might have worked as satire. (The packed audience around me cracked up, I thought with relief that someone had finally cut through the movie’s bullshit.)

The Girl on the Train has a similarly convoluted narrative, and though I promise not to reveal too much in consideration of those who haven’t read the book, some discussion of the plot is necessary to get at why I think it’s such a crock, so let’s call this a spoiler alert. The protagonist, Rachel (Emily Blunt), is an alcoholic whose husband Tom (Justin Theroux) left her for another woman, Anna (Rebecca Ferguson). And though they’re now married with a baby, Rachel still hasn’t moved on. She’s obsessed with Tom’s new life; she can’t stop herself from leaving him phone messages and once she even let herself into his house and, finding Anna asleep, picked up the baby and took her as far as the garden. (Tom’s affair with Anna began while Rachel herself was pregnant, and his marriage to Rachel collapsed after she miscarried.) She lost her job as a result of her drinking, but she’s too embarrassed to admit it to the friend (Laura Prepon) from whom she’s renting a room. So every day she pretends to go to work but just rides the commuter train to and from the city, swigging booze from a water bottle as she passes Ardsley on Hudson, her old neighborhood, where Tom and Anna live together in the house she used to share with him. (Taylor and the screenwriter, Erin Cressida Wilson, have shifted the location from the London suburbs to Westchester.) From the train she can observe a young couple on whom she projects her own fantasy of a perfect married life, until one day she glimpses the woman, Megan (Haley Bennett), in an embrace with another man. Then Megan disappears, and Rachel feels duty bound to inform first the homicide detective on the case, Riley (Allison Janney), and then Megan’s husband Scott (Luke Evans) about what she saw. To complicate matters further, the night Megan vanished Rachel got off the train in Ardsley but she had one of her drunken blackouts and can’t remember exactly what happened. In Riley’s mind that makes Rachel, with her fixation on her husband and his new wife and her fantasy fixation on Megan and Scott, a suspect.

Allison Janney as Riley, the homicide detective.

The novel is a triple-first-person narrative: it switches back and forth among Rachel’s point of view, Megan’s and Anna’s. Wilson has copied the book’s structure, including so many flashbacks that after a while the title cards announcing “Two Years Ago,” “A Week Ago” and so forth become rather funny, like the meaningless time and place announcements in the surrealist shorts Buñuel did with Salvador Dali. I suppose the filmmakers felt they needed to stick to the novel to please its millions of readers, but really this isn’t adaptation – Wilson should have rethought the structure to give it a dramatic shape. In the book the shifts create a kind of crude suspense as Megan’s story approaches the point of her disappearance, but in the movie they’re mostly a distraction. I’m sure that Hawkins thought that by putting us in the minds of all three characters she was engaged in a feminist exploration of three different kinds of women, all of whom are or have been in uneasy romantic relationships. But Megan and Anna never get beyond the stereotypes of the supposed sexual free spirit who’s really profoundly damaged and the devoted housewife and mother who pretends not to notice the fissures in her marriage. And though Emily Blunt gives a fine performance – she has some remarkable scenes where she digs into the confusion, the anger and the feeling of hopelessness of a woman for whom liquor is increasingly ineffectual at edging out the truth of a scattered, intolerable existence – Rachel is a romance-fiction fantasy. The movie, like the book, gives the impression for a long time that she’s as pathetic as both Tom and Detective Riley say she is, but then she turns out to be merely the victim of male abuse, her entire self-perception based on some sociopathic man’s manipulation of her. It turns out that when she trusts her own instincts she’s smarter than anybody else. She solves the goddamn mystery when even Riley gets it wrong.

All three of the movie’s main characters are hunks (though different kinds of hunks) who function as embodiments of its essentially masochistic female fantasy, including Megan’s soft-eyed, compassionate therapist (Edgar Ramírez). It doesn’t acknowledge the shrink’s dumbfounding lack of professionalism, because he’s only there to counter the other two; Megan, counter-transferring wildly, falls for him because his kindness and warmth provide a soft space she can sink into. (Wilson’s one smart move is to eliminate an extraneous brutal encounter Rachel has with one of the men in the novel, which does nothing but echo Hawkins’ depiction of abusive guys.) I did like Darren Goldstein in a bit as a commuter who shows some concern for Rachel, to the limited extent to which the movie employs him, mostly because – at least as Goldstein plays him – he comes across as a real person, more so than in the book. (And the film certainly benefits from the presence of Allison Janney.)

Wilson’s way of alerting us that this is adult stuff is to have the characters say “fuck” as often as possible, though all it really tells us is that the picture needs a dialogue writer with some imagination. And it’s a little hard to take The Girl on the Train seriously as a feminist examination of anything when Taylor shoots Haley Bennett’s scenes to incorporate as much gratuitous nudity as possible: in one flashback-within-a-flashback sequence, her response to a deeply upsetting revelation is to jump out of the bath and run outside naked while the camera lingers on her. Poor Bennett: the scene is so clumsily framed and so ugly that it makes mincemeat of her.

Some of the popular women’s fiction of the mid-twentieth century has turned out to be more interesting and more revealing than it got points for being at the time. This summer I read Rona Jaffe’s 1958 novel The Best of Everything on the advice of a friend and was struck by how smart it was and how complex a vision it presented of the lives of young women in the Manhattan workplace during that era. (I was also struck by Jaffe’s skill: she could have written circles around Paula Hawkins and Gillian Flynn.) No one is likely to to have that experience half a century from now who comes across this particular genre of women’s fiction and the movies culled from it. It’s going to come across as a genuine embarrassment.

– Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes for The Threepenny Review and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting StyleNo Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies.

No comments:

Post a Comment