Arguably the most famous close-ups in cinema history take place in Carl Theodor Dreyer’s “The Passion of Joan of Arc,” the 1928 silent classic that elevated the expressively tight framed shot of facial contortions to the position of high art. Dreyer later said of the close-up, “Nothing in the world can be compared to the human face. It is a land one can never tire of exploring.”
It’s a blessing Dreyer did not live to see Tate Taylor’s “The Girl on the Train,” a film that puts the close-up to shame through bludgeoning and excessive use. This specific shot is the movie’s only language to convey the internal agony of its three leading female characters. No need to waste time detailing the multitude of other techniques available at Taylor’s disposal, so let’s just leave it at the fact that the close-up is lazy shorthand for emotional intimacy.
The camera tries to substitute the reservoirs of feeling hidden by the icy women, each with their own secrets to bury and axes to grind. Their blank stares into the distance are meant to convey restraint or secrecy; instead, they convey nothing. One only needs to hold up the work of star Emily Blunt in “The Girl on the Train” alongside her performance in “Sicario” to see the difference. In the latter film, the most minuscule movement in Blunt’s face communicates a complex response to the ever-shifting environment around her character Kate Macer. Here, as the alcoholic voyeur Rachel Watson, Blunt is reduced to gasps and gazes that do little to illuminate her psychology.
The aesthetic proves nearly as limiting as the “damaged” or “fragile” archetypes into which the film force-fits the complex women from Paula Hawkins’ book. Rachel is the kind of loner bag lady who lets out a single tear in a grand display of emotion. Rebecca Ferguson’s Anna Watson, the other woman who ultimately wrestles away Rachel’s husband, is domestic denial incarnate. Haley Bennett’s Megan Hipwell, Anna’s nanny who suffers from spiritual numbness, appears to be doing her best Jennifer Lawrence impersonation.
“What is it with you crazy women,” asks a male character towards the end of “The Girl on the Train.” The line should point out his own misogyny, but it ends up serving as an accidental descriptor for the film itself. Lost in the justifiable anger over the impunity with which male swinging dicks can fulfill their every carnal desire is any real sense of characterization for the women characters. Outrage towards the terrible torture of despicable men means little when the tortured women are one-dimensional portrayals of familiar stereotypes. Sanitizing abuse, depression, alcoholism and gender hierarchy leaves everything feeling akin to soap opera. C /