Sunday, September 24, 2023

‘The Girl on the Train’ Never Builds Up Steam

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The Girl on the Train is a mystery thriller that is so confused by its own mystery that it lacks any thrills. At times it becomes so bad that it threatens to be entertaining only to slide back into petty boredom. It is a movie that is at all times desperately trying to grab your attention only to lose it before the scene ends.

A loose adaptation of the British book of the same name by Paula Hawkins, the director Ribhu Dasgupta sets about making sure the audience is confused from the start. Within the first twenty minutes, we have gone three or four years into the past, only to skip ahead two weeks before the beginning of the film, then we jump ahead to the present day. Considering this is a story about a woman vanishing only to turn up dead it helps to know when and where we are, but Dasgupta doesn’t want to play fair.

It should be noted that Dasgupta, who both adapted the book and directed, is not the first to adapt Hawkins’s novel. Tate Taylor directed the American 2016 adaptation starring Emily Blunt. This version stars Parineeti Chopra as Mira, the woman whose life is in shambles and is obsessed with a Nusrat (Aditi Rao Hydari) whom she sees every day as her train passes Nusrat’s house. One day she notices Nusrat is with someone who is not her husband. Later when she goes missing Mira begins to worry.

I have not read the book but I have seen the 2016 American movie. I enjoyed the movie well enough for what it was. In my memories, it is affectionately filed away under the nickname “Murder She Drunk”. So I am not sure how this new version fairs as an adaptation of the novel except to say that Dasgupta has gone to great lengths to change a series of plot points and even gone so far as to change the identity of the murderer.

Dasgupta has also added a subplot about mobsters. Mira is now a fearless Advocate of the court. Though the one case we do see her try, her client, even though his life has been threatened, seems like he could care less about the outcome of the trial. She wins and Jimmy Bagga (Krishan Tandon), a club owner, is convicted for murder.

None of this matters. At least not until the last forty minutes. Which is a recurring problem throughout The Girl on the Train. Whole plot elements vanish or are dropped only to be picked up farther down the line as if they were somehow important.

The scenes in The Girl on the Train are either too long or too short. This is not at all helped by how Dasgupta creates a sort of narrative fricassee with the myriad of points of view. These point of view shifts are made all the more confusing because the film does little to give us any visual hints of whose perspective we’re seeing when the scene is taking place, and why we should care. Though bathed in blue and orange lights the film is never able to wrestle a hold of any visual indication to help us understand where or when a scene is taking place.

The Girl on the Train is the type of story that’s meant to be outlandish. But Dasgupta doesn’t go for outlandish so much as blunt. For example, we know Mira is an alcoholic because she is constantly pulling a flask of vodka from her purse to take a swig from. At one point she is drinking from her flask as she stumbles down the middle of the street.

But the film never has any fun with it. Chopra’s Mira is too slow on the uptake and has the tendency to never quite understand exactly how much trouble she’s in despite being an Advocate. She staggers around the majority of the film with a gaping head wound and never seems at all perturbed or bothered by it and at times seems to forget she even has it.

In one scene Dasgupta threatens to give us whiplash as he takes into not one, not two, but three different scenes within a scene from different points of view. Follow me on this: The inspector assigned to Nusrat’s murder, Dalbir Kaur (Kirti Kulhari) is listening to a taped therapy session between Nusrat and her therapist Dr. Hamid (Tota Roy Chowdhury). The film cuts to the therapy session in which Nusrat talks about an incident at home with her husband Anand (Shamaun Ahmed). 

Dasgupta then cuts to the scene between Nusrat and Anand. Here, cinematographer Tribhuvan Babu Sadineni helps us out by lighting the scene with Anand with bright orange light and the therapist scene in cool blues. Except when we cut to Inspector Kaur it’s back to orange light with a hint of natural light. Dasgupta then cuts back to Nusrat in her therapy seeing a man outside the window and gasping, before cutting back to the Kaur. 

Perhaps if Dasgupta and Sadineni had any fun with The Girl on the Train it wouldn’t be so bad. But they don’t, they play it too straight while at the same time trying to distract us with all the outlandish reveals. But since everything is so subdued nothing feels outlandish. 

Even more irritating, this adaption, despite changing who the killer is, feels obligated to still try and be faithful to scenes from the American 2016 movie for no real reason. Mira’s husband, Shekhar(Avinash Tiwary) is brought in towards the end as a major player in the climax but, like almost everything else, has largely been ignored for most of the movie.

The climax of The Girl on the Train is a cyclone of confusion as discarded plot threads are woven back into the whole while Chopra tries to act through a slog of convoluted exposition. Dasgupta doesn’t have the flair or self-awareness to make the over-the-top moment memorable. But Chopra does her best to chew the scenery and provide one of the few moments in which both Mira and Chopra come alive.

The Girl on the Train is one of those movies that if it was just a little worse or a little better it would be more enjoyable. It’s sunk by its own perceived cleverness and made bland by its bland style. The movie should have a drive and kinetic energy to it. But it’s weighed down by a lack of fun and comes across as a mild slog.

Image courtesy of Netflix

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  • Jeremiah

    Jeremiah lives in Los Angeles and divides his time between living in a movie theatre and writing mysteries. There might also be some ghostbusting being performed in his spare time.

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