The thing with Hitchcock is rather simple: he was a formalist and a control freak without much empathy. Show one a fully fleshed character in his entire oeuvre and one will show you a liar: they’re all puppets serving his vision. There are therefore two possible paths when copycating / paying hommage to him: the formal way, which Brian de Palma had some success with, although he was too much of a Catholic, giallo-raised Italian to do more than mimicking a repressed English Protestant; or the “inspirational” way, which equates to placing “real” people in Sir Alfred’s trademark tricky situations. And this simply can’t work, because the absurdity of the plot then takes centerstage and backfires on the characters, making them caricatures of “real” people. Exhibit 2016 is The Girl On The Train.
An awkward mix of The Lady Vanishes, Rear Window, Spellbound and Suspicion, the movie stars Emily Blunt (good, and blessed with an even better eyesight) as commuter Rachel, vicariously living a perfect life through Megan, a woman she watches on her way to and back from the city, who seems the embodiement of bliss with her blonde looks, big house and handsome husband. The day she glimpses Megan in the arms of another man sends her into a downward spiral of alcohol-fueled rage and further enhances her aptitude at stalking her ex-husband (Justin Theroux, bland) and his new wife, Anna, who gave him the child he always dreamed of after Rachel proved to be barren, rhubard rhubarb rhubarb. Are we twisted enough yet?
One fateful night Rachel has a few too many and wakes up in a confusion of blood, vomit and cryptic flashbacks from a convenient blackout. Megan has been killed and Rachel becomes The Wrong Man (well, woman in that instance), which at least has the advantage of bringing on Allison Jeanney as a surprisingly understanding cop (she must have read the script). Twists and turns ensue, until a finale which might surprise you if you have never seen a thriller before, but earns a few brownie points for a corkscrew murder – call it alcoholic justice.
Build as a 21st century TV series, with the action jumping backwards and forward via title cards, including ones introducing the female leads by their first name, The Girl On The Train is not bad at putting together in a bell jar a bunch of parasites unable to feed from each other, and that’s quite about it. Rachel the wacko tries “to remember when was the last time she had meaningful contact with anyone”, which sounds a rather quaint way to qualify her situation. Also, she’s an alcoholic for the exact time the script needs her to be, after which a brief AA meeting allows her to breeze through the programme’s 12 steps in order to ask herself meaningful questions of the “do you ever really know anyone else?” kind. Oh, rutabaga.
Don’t miss the ginger haired Red Herring or the analysed-by-numbers shrink scenes, shoehorned into what should have sticked to an unreliable witness tale of frustration and depression, or a dream, or a ghost story, or a split personnality case, or whatever else it actually is. That’s how bad it is. The Girl On The Train pilfers Hitchcock’s vocabulary but doesn’t have any grammar to put the words in a correct sentence; it is therefore a meaningless, useless exercice. Oh well, at least the last scene doesn’t show a train rushing into a tunnel; that would have been the cherry on the layer cake.