I was blessed to see The Girl on the Train with some of the Sanford House residents, in the comfy seats at AMC Grand Rapids 18. The book won superb reviews by the rest of the Sanford House clinical team, as an excellent portrayal of alcoholism, power and control, and domestic violence. The film version did not disappoint…
It’s a Murder Mystery
Here is your SPOILER ALERT! This film is psychological thriller, and the next sentences WILL take the fun out of the movie if you haven’t seen it yet. Stop. Post this to your Facebook page to read later, go see the flick, then come back here. It’s worth it. I know for those addicts out there, it is difficult to stop now. Say the Serenity Prayer.
This film goes above and beyond portraying the powerlessness of the alcoholic. It illustrates the sheer power of alcohol to make someone vulnerable, when it is used as a weapon. Rachel, our protagonist (although she seems to be the antagonist (murderer) throughout the majority of the film), suffers from a severe drinking problem. She has a thick history of blackouts and debilitating loneliness and pointlessness after a failed marriage.
The actress, Emily Blunt, does a brilliant job of portraying drunken sorrow. She leaves the house every morning, as if she’s going to work, but spends the day riding the commuter train, obtaining, hiding and abusing vodka. She also obsesses over her past life, her infertility and consequent rejection by her husband. Like so many others, she uses her addiction to “cope” which leads to desperation and downward spirals of shame.
Unable to numb the pain with any amount of booze, Rachael distracts herself with voyeurism and jealousy over a woman in fleeting view during her train journey. The woman is Megan, and Rachael imagines she is having a perfect love life. A perfect life. As the movie unfolds, the viewer learns that Megan lives near Rachel’s ex-husband and works as a nanny for their household.
In our opening scene, Rachel is watching out the window of a train. She is thinking, “I’m not the girl I used to be. I think people can see it on my face.” And we can. Rosy cheeks, clammy skin, distractingly dry lips, glossy unfocused eyes, and a stumbling gait. When she speaks, the depth of the slur somehow surprises. As she rides the train back and forth, she is like a ghost – her interactions with other passengers are fleeting. The looks on the faces of her train mates say it all – she is wasted and they are disgusted. A woman with a baby asks, “Are you alone?” and sits in the empty seat beside her. We witness Rachel attempt to connect, converse and fail. Only to suck on her vodka, “water” bottle like a baby with a nipple…
We see Rachel lie, hide, and live a secret life. She justifies her actions, “The front door was open, it’s not like I broke in…” as she sneaks into her ex’s house. She snatches his baby from her crib while his new wife is napping… We see her sneaking into her ex’s email account, obsess over emails and send scores of texts at odd hours. She continues to rage out of control, in the endless, spiritual void of her addiction.
The Alcoholic’s Eye View…
The cinematography showcases Rachel’s-eye-view. The camera blurs in a moment of panic, she stumbles, screaming at strangers. Poignantly, Rachel shares at an AA meeting what it feels like to be in her shoes. She says,“You’re sorry for what you’ve done and who you are, and swear you’re never gonna do it again, but you do”.
The film seemed to know what I was thinking. At one point I wondered, “Where is Rachel going?” and within seconds we are seeing her sitting in Central Park. Drinking and ruminating. I asked myself, “Why does she even wear makeup?” Her eyeliner is always smeared and she’s too shaky to apply lipstick. In the next scene we see her bare-faced. She sets down “her mask” to attend an AA meeting and attempt to get sober, vulnerable enough to share that she recently woke up from a blackout, bloodied and bruised.
Her attempt at sobriety is thwarted by a man who strongly encourages her to have a beer. And when Megan is murdered, Rachel remembers only enough details about being near the scene of the crime, to worry about what she might have done on the night in question.
Which brings us to the crux. Rachael’s alcoholism allowed her, a normally smart and capable woman, to be victimized by her ex-husband in the most intimate of ways. In a cruel, abusive turn, he implanted false memories in her head, after her blackouts. With no memories of her own, she was an easy victim. He used this to confuse her, and attempt to pin her with murdering Megan.
We see him spew the most vile emotional abuse, to shame and trick Rachel. He tells her “You’re like an unwanted dog.” True to life, her alcoholism feeds the shaming and she is a whipping boy to Megan’s husband (another angry man) who tells her, ‘You’re a sad liar with no life.” The omnipresent detective, who is clearly disgusted by Rachel’s drinking throughout the movie, thinks she’s lying. By the end of the movie, Rachel doesn’t know what she’s done or what the truth is – her memories come back in bits and pieces… Everyone assumes the worst about her.
Finding the Strength
It is only when Rachel stops drinking, that she finds the strength to seek and face the truth. Literally. In one of the film’s most important moments, the ex-husband pours a huge glass of vodka and puts it in front of a captive Rachel. When she refuses to drink, he throws it in her face. As it drips off her cheeks and lips, she finds her resolve. And accuses him of all his wrongs.
The film ends with a fantastic model of survivorship over victimhood. The ever important concept of making healthy lessons out of suffering domestic violence. Rachel looks sober. Stronger with the connections she has made, but still alone in a train car. She sits on the other side of the aisle and looks at a different view, out a different window. She says, “I sit in a different car. I look ahead, because anything is possible. I’m not the girl I used to be”.