The Return of the Hitchcockian Thriller

As always in my movie reviews, I will preface any spoilers with “SPOILER ALERT:”

“The Girl on the Train” (2016) is a very well-executed film based upon the novel by Paula Hawkins. Its strength really lies in its probing of the rotten core that lies beneath the shiny gleam of suburbia. It does this in a vastly different way from 2014’s “Gone Girl” (another movie I love). I do not consider “Gone Girl” a real Hitchcockian thriller because its twists depend on a deliberately unreliable narrator. “The Girl on the Train,” however, gets its twists from the unreliability inherent in psychiatric dissociation and the psychophysiology of alcohol: a much more Hitchcockian plot device. The only other film that comes so close to the Hitchcockian exploration of the psyche in recent memory, and that could also be justifiably be called a “Hitchcockian thriller,” is 2004’s “The Machinist”.

To begin this review and the association with Hitchcock, it is necessary to point out that “The Girl on the Train” has much more in common with Billy Wilder’s “The Lost Weekend” (1945) , minus the preachiness about boozing, than the more obvious association that may come to mind: Hitchcock’s “Strangers on a Train” (1951).

Emily Blunt does a rather decent job of playing Rachel Watson: a 30-something boozing divorcee who spends her days riding the train past her old home on Long Island into Manhattan. She really did remind me of Ray Milland’s alcoholic character in “The Lost Weekend” (for which he won an Academy Award).

SPOILER ALERT: Blunt’s character further suffers from bouts of blackout drunkenness and dissociation. In her bouts of melancholia after her divorce from Justin Theroux’s character, she quite often observes the house two houses down from her old one with a voluptuous blonde (Haley Bennett) and her husband. She cannot help herself however and quite often looks at her old home as well, where her ex-husband is now married to a lovely blonde too.

The use of blonde leading ladies was a well known trade mark of Hitch’s. Check out Grace Kelly in “Dial M for Murder” (1954) and “Rear Window” (1954), Janet Leigh in “Psycho” (1960), Joan Fontaine in “Rebecca” (1940), Ingrid Bergman in “Spellbound” (1945) and “Notorious” (1946), Kim Novak in “Vertigo” (1958), Eva Marie Saint in “North by Northwest” (1959), and Tippi Hedren in “The Birds” (1963).

Rachel Watson’s voyeurism was very much in the vein of “Rear Window” too, observing, than obsessing to the point of drawing the people and making lives for them in her head, much in the same way Jimmy Stewart’s character in “Rear Window” gives name to his unknown neighbors that he observes: Miss Torso, Miss Lonely Heart, the Salesman, etc. SPOILER ALERT: Rachel’s drunken melancholia, and episodes of dissociation, lead to her hanging around her old neighborhood more than once when Haley Bennett’s character disappears. Rachel is the second person questioned after Haley Bennett’s husband (with the theory that she attacked Haley Bennett because she very closely resembled her ex’s new wife) but she at first cannot recall anything of being in the neighborhood that night because of her drunken blackouts. The whole movie turns on the manipulation of Rachel Watson’s memory, and there exists a brilliant twist in the story, very reminiscent of “Gone Girl” and “Dial M for Murder.” This narrative arc is also very reminiscent of Hitch’s “The Lady Vanishes” (1938).

To wrap this up, I thought the film was brilliant. It could have been better in acting and direction, but the story and the way it was told was stellar, and very much heralds a return of the Hitchcockian thriller, long overdue in this film buff’s opinion. Alfred Hitchcock was a gifted storyteller who knew that a cool psychodrama doesn’t manipulate the story structure with silly plot contrivances, but instead utilizes the neuropsychological dynamics of the characters. “The Girl on the Train” (2016) certainly fits that bill.

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Wess A. Haubrich is contributing editor at The 405 Film.

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4 thoughts on “The Return of the Hitchcockian Thriller

  1. I will have to check it out.

    I recently audiobooked a book called Woman In The Window which seemed like it was conceived to be a Hitchcock movie but instead became an homage to Hitchcock in book form. I decided I should consume more stories like this.

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  2. Ditto to what Em said. I stopped reading once I got to the spoiler warning.

    I will say I’ve always had a strong distaste for Hitchcock’s shtick. I didn’t like the music, his lispy affectation, or his ploy of playing small roles in his movies–those things just turned me off. However, the actual shows, a few of which I’ve seen, I usually liked and they’re the type of shows I like anyway.

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