In The Girl on the Train (2016), Rachel Watson — a divorced, alcoholic — becomes obsessed with a woman who she watches as her train passes the woman’s house. The story covers themes of reality and illusion, and suppressed memories. The audience discovers the true nature of Rachel’s situation in parallel to her self-awareness. In this respect it follows a similar pattern to other repressed or lost memory psychological dramas, such as Memento (2000), and Insomnia (2002) where the protagonists come to terms with their own behaviour.
The Girl on the Train revolves around Rachel’s train journey into the city centre, the repetition of the train journey acts as both as the vantage point from which she sees the subject of her obsession, and as a detached space for her thoughts. The train as a location has a long history in storytelling — The General (1926), Shanghai Express (1932), The 39 Steps (1935), The Lady Vanishes (1938), Strangers On A Train (1951), From Russia With Love (1963), Murder on the Orient Express (1974), Source Code(2011) — although it usually serves as a means of getting characters together, often where they are forced into conflict. Here it serves as a point of reflection and symbolises the lies and denial that exist within her: the train journey is a voyage into her past, a past that no longer exists. The train segments frame the story, structuring it, and creating a backdrop that contribute to our initial understanding of Rachel as a busy PR worker.
The story begins as a warning, and it feels like a tragedy in the making — an alcoholic central character becoming obsessive about another woman’s life, which, in contrast to her own, appears happy and successful. The story suggests that Rachel is heading towards a breakdown and potentially becoming a psychotic stalker. As the story unfolds the red flags become increasingly obvious: the audience must assume that she is a dark character.
The film gradually reveals the truth surrounding her predicament, her relationship with the woman she obsesses over, that woman’s partner, the woman’s therapist, as well as Rachel’s ex-husband, who lives with his new partner and their baby in the house that Rachel used to share with him. The central plot point revolves around Rachel’s memory loss, brought about by alcohol-related blackouts. These flashbacks, re-lived moments, provide points of reference for the audience to: puzzle over the truth, gain additional insights, and for the storyteller to introduce plot twists.
The story turns from a warning, about Rachel’s psychological disintegration, into a celebration of her resilience and determination. The flashbacks draw her closer and closer to the truth, and towards the climax that will see her face the real cause of her problems. The Girl on the Train presents the audience with a classic unreliable narrator, but, unlike Will Dormer in Insomnia, who gradually realises the dark truth about himself, Rachel’s investigations will set her in a different direction. What initially appears to be a neurotic, alcoholic, who has lost control of her life, turns into a celebration of the human spirit, and a heroic struggle to expose injustice.