The Girl on the Train is the story of three European-American women whose lives are destroyed by various aspects of the modern world.
Rachel Watson is a divorcée who rides the train into New York City every day for work. Out the window she watches her old house, where her ex-husband lives with his new wife and baby. We later learn he had an affair with Anna while they were still married, and see Rachel’s devastation when she comes across their emails to each other.
A few houses away, Rachel watches the lives of a young newlywed couple, Megan and Scott Hipwell. To Rachel, they seem to have the perfect life and be completely in love: “She’s what I lost. She’s everything I want to be.”
When Megan disappears, Rachel gets involved in the missing persons case, and ends up wrapped up in her ex’s life as well.
The film gets the point across that women long to be in love and happily married, and that they long for children as well. For all three women, those dreams are destroyed by various aspects of modern society. (Spoilers follow.)
Rachel Watson is the epitome of a successful woman as defined by the Left. She has a career in the city in public relations, shares an apartment with a friend, has no children, and although divorced, she’s still young enough to go out and date or pursue whatever she desires.
The problem is, what Rachel wants more than anything is children (and a husband and house in the suburbs). As her back story unfolds, we learn that when she learned she was infertile, she and Tom tried IVF. After one failed cycle, they couldn’t afford more treatments. (After we see her Tom’s lifestyle with his new wife, it’s hard to believe another round, even at $35,000, would be unaffordable.) Because she can’t conceive, Rachel spirals into depression, alcoholism, and blackouts. Tom tells her of her violent actions during her blackouts–one outburst at his boss’s house caused him to be fired.
It turns out that only part of the story is true. Though Rachel was infertile and started drinking, Tom was gaslighting his wife the whole time about what happened during her blackouts. Tom used these periods to be violent, then told her she was the one who caused the destruction.
It’s possible to interpret this story as Tom being a cruel husband–another movie about an abusive white male. But I see it as how the decline in community causes Rachel’s years of self-blame and despondency. As an example, one day Rachel sees the wife of Tom’s former boss on the train–it was supposedly at her house where Rachel had a violent outburst that led to Tom being fired. When Rachel approaches her to apologize, Martha says the outburst never happened–Rachel took a nap in the guest room, and Tom was fired for sleeping with so many women in the office. Rather than hating Rachel, everyone has felt sorry for her.
We can imagine such a scenario turning out differently in a more traditional society. Perhaps Rachel’s father or brothers would insist that Tom be faithful. As it stands, all the characters’ families are completely absent from the film. Additionally, Rachel wouldn’t have spent two years not knowing Tom was gaslighting her. She could have talked to his boss or anyone else sooner and known the truth.
The modern world is so fragmented that married people carry on affairs at work and their spouse never sees anyone who could tell them. People need to go back to getting involved in each others’ lives again–not as busybodies, but as helpers.
Rachel watches the Hipwells embrace on their balcony and make love in front of open windows. To her they seem madly in love.
Beneath the surface it’s a different story. Scott longs for a family but Megan can’t stand to be around a baby. She’s frustrated with her suburban neighborhood and the women’s obsession with being mothers and nothing else. At first it sees like she’s become callous to maternal instincts by a hard life of failed romance and even prostitution.
Later we learn she had a baby at age 17, and how consumed she’s been with guilt over his death. Her boyfriend abandoned her right after the death, no doubt exacerbating her trauma. Like the other women in the film, she instinctively longs for motherhood but had it snatched away. In a wholesome traditional society, Megan wouldn’t have been living in a cabin in the woods with her boyfriend, with no other women to assist her with child-rearing. Her baby’s death likely would have been avoided. And if her child had died, her husband/boyfriend wouldn’t have been able to leave her without being punished by the community. She’d have been pregnant again soon enough, with other children to help heal the pain from her child’s death.
Megan is promiscuous and in some ways is a stereotypical, flat character. We know she’s going to come on to her attractive, older Arab-looking psychiatrist. (Of the three men in the film, the Arab is the only one who is kind, professional, and chivalrous; the two white men are abusive, and one is unfaithful to multiple spouses.) But we learn throughout the film to not blame her. Like so many young women brainwashed by Hollywood films and fashion magazines, she’s not a “sexually liberated” modern women living a great life, but a woman in deep pain. Megan is an example of the many women dealing with a legacy of abuse from their family or origin, and the psychological trauma caused by modern society.
Anna Watson is by far the least sympathetic of the three women. She had an affair with Tom while he was married, leading to his divorce from Rachel and nearly making her go crazy. In the novel, apparently she even delights in flaunting her conquest of Tom in front of Rachel and the pain it causes her. Although Rachel stalks them, it’s hard to feel sympathy for a woman living in another woman’s house.
Anna hires Megan as a nanny, and when she quits Anna goes on a tirade about how hard her life is–she doesn’t work, has to shop to farmer’s markets, and make organic baby food. She’s obviously stuck in the upper middle class social status trap. Anna demonstrates that marriage and motherhood are fulfilling, but not if they’re turned into chores of conspicuous consumption.
The Girl on the Train received mixed reviews from critics, garnering a 44 percent average on Rotten Tomatoes. The criticism is mostly unfounded. This is a chick flick, albeit a smart one, and shouldn’t be judged as a mainstream film. It’s supposed to be about the intersection of love and violence, but more so it reveals three ways the modern world has failed three different women.