The Girl on the Train

Cast: Emily Blunt, Rebecca Ferguson, Haley Bennett, Justin Theroux, Luke Evans, Allison Janney, Édgar Ramírez, Lisa Kudrow

Director: Tate Taylor

Writer: Erin Cressida Wilson

This is a film that has garnered a lot of comparisons with Gone Girl, leading many to dismiss The Girl on the Train as the lesser of the two. Both of these movies are suburban thrillers detailing the dark or even sinister secrets that lurk beneath the everyday facades these characters wear. Both mysteries are focused on the sudden disappearance of a beautiful, blonde suburban housewife. Both films play around with time and perspective. Both films share a similar tone and visual style. Both stories are based on bestsellers written by women. Maybe this film is intentionally trying to replicate what Fincher and Flynn did with their film to attain that same level of acclaim, or maybe it’s just an unfortunate coincidence that Gone Girl happened to be made two years earlier. Although I do think this film possesses positive qualities that make for a good movie, they were sadly not enough to make me forget that it’s been done before and it’s been done better.

Every day Rachel Watson (Emily Blunt) commutes to the city on a route that takes her directly past the neighbourhood where she used to live. There she can see her old house where her ex-husband Tom Watson (Justin Theroux) lives with his mistress-turned-wife Anna Boyd (Rebecca Ferguson) and their new-born daughter. During her trips Rachel becomes increasingly fascinated with the house three doors up where the alluring Megan Hipwell (Haley Bennett) lives with her husband Scott (Luke Evans). Seeing them together in the briefest of glimpses, Rachel fantasies about what a perfect marriage they must have while she drowns her own sorrows in the bottle. This fantasy is then shattered when Rachel spots Megan kissing another man on her balcony. Enraged and inebriated, she resolves to confront Megan before blacking out and awakening in her bedroom with an injured head. When it is revealed that Megan has since gone missing and has been presumed dead, Rachel’s erratic behaviour makes her the top suspect in Detective Riley’s (Allison Janney) investigation.

In comparing these two films I found myself recalling a forgettable sci-fi movie I once saw called The Thirteenth Floor, a film about a virtual reality. It had a fascinating concept and impressive (for the time) visuals but was ultimately a victim of its clumsy writing and inexpert direction. Its biggest weakness though was that it happened to come out just a couple of months after The Matrix. In a nutshell, that’s kind of how I feel about this film. The Girl on the Train could be intriguing at times and has a strong leading lady in Blunt, but the issues it suffers from keep it far from attaining greatness. When compared to Gone Girl, this film is dead in the water. The film’s underlying mystery is a whodunit (in contrast to Gone Girl which is more of a howdunit or whydunit) with a ‘who’ that is pretty easy to guess. The real story is of three women and the fears and flaws they suffer that drive the action that occurs, but these women aren’t as complex or as compelling as the film clearly wants them to be. The direction Taylor brings is pretty standard and never surprises, not even in the surprise twist when we learn that things are not the way we’ve been led to believe. Thus the suspense, the captivation and the artistry that made Gone Girl such a great watch is either lacking or absent as far as this film is concerned.

Blunt puts everything she has into her performance and it definitely counts for a lot. She plays a wretched, severely alcoholic woman punishing herself day after day for the shambles that was her marriage. She is a miserably lonely creature, staring longingly through the window towards this seemingly perfect life that has been lost and denied to her. She recalls memories of how her marriage to Tom was wrecked by her excessive drinking and his infidelity and jumps back and forth between inconsolable despair and antagonistic rage. Blunt is able to be both subtle and outrageous when the script calls for it and single-handedly makes this film. If only the other two women were half as compelling. One is a bored housewife looking for an escape. The other is a bored housewife looking for passion. The two women, along with their husbands, are so nondescript as characters that I could only remember who was who through face recognition alone.

Still, when it comes right down to it, I can’t say that The Girl on the Train was a bad film. It has a complicated and engaging character at its helm played superbly by a marvellous actress. While I wasn’t particularly interested in the story or its mystery, I was invested to the extent that I wanted to see Rachel pick herself up, get her act together, and turn out all right. If the film had the gripping sense of pace, the captivatingly ambiguous tone or the wonderfully astute camerawork of Gone Girl, then we might have had the suspenseful suburban thriller that the writer and director were clearly going for. In a universe where Gone Girl didn’t exist perhaps the issues I had with The Girl on the Train would not have been so glaring. The reality though is that no movie exists in a vacuum. The comparison between these two films is as appropriate as it is inevitable and the difference in quality is clear. Everything this film does badly, the other does well. Everything this film does well, the other does better.



The Magnificent Seven

Cast: Denzel Washington, Chris Pratt, Ethan Hawke, Vincent D’Onofrio, Byung-hun Lee, Manuel Garcia-Rulfo, Martin Sansmeier, Peter Sarsgaard, Haley Bennett

Director: Antoine Fuqua

Writers: Nic Pizzolatto, Richard Wenk

In making this film Fuqua has given himself not one, but two cinematic legacies to live up to. First is Akira Kurosawa’s seminal Seven Samurai, arguably the greatest and most influential picture ever made by the great Japanese director. The second is John Sturges’ The Magnificent Seven, the lesser Hollywood remake that nevertheless brought its own style and charm to the story. The former is a groundbreaking epic of masterful artistry and immense depth. The latter is a classic American western made enormously watchable by its terrific production and all-star cast. Neither of the shadows cast by these films can be ignored. Although this film takes the name of the Sturges’ film, it still cites the Kurosawa epic as its source material. Thus, whether the film wants to be an entertaining escapist spectacle or an innovative work of art (or, dare I say, both), the standard is high on both fronts.

The mining town of Rose Creek is attacked by a troop of bandits led by the corrupt entrepreneur Bartholomew Bogue (Peter Sarsgaard), who imposes his will by slaughtering many of the locals. Thus Emma Cullen (Haley Bennett) and Teddy Q (Luke Grimes) set out on a mission in search of help. They find it in the warrant officer Sam Chisholm (Denzel Washington) who accepts the contract upon learning of Bogue’s involvement. He sets out to recruit a team to help him with this endeavour, starting with the gambler John Faraday (Chris Pratt). The two are later joined by the sharpshooter Goodnight Robicheaux (Ethan Hawke) and his knife-wielding comrade Billy Rocks (Lee Byung-hun), the crazed but capable tracker Jack Horne (Vincent D’Onofrio), the disreputable Mexican outlaw Vasquez (Manuel Garcia-Rulfo), and the Comanche warrior Red Harvest (Martin Sensmeir). The seven of them together come to Rose Creek where they put into motion a plan to defend the town and its people from Bogue’s forces.

One of the strong points shared by both the Kurosawa and the Sturges films is the simplicity of their stories. Seven diverse warriors band together to combat a single threat. It is this simplicity that allowed both stories to be strongly driven by character and action. Fuqua’s film has this same simple setup; the problem is that he offers little of substance in its execution. Despite having a terrific cast at his disposal, there are few moments when they are truly able to come together and bring some life to the story. This is largely because the characters are defined more by star power than they are by their personalities. This can work on occasion. Chris Pratt, for example, does well in what is very much a ‘Chris Pratt’ role: a cocky but charming scoundrel. Denzel Washington however is cast as a strong, silent type and is thus allowed few opportunities to display his formidable on-screen presence and charisma. The chemistry between the actors is sometimes there, as in one scene where Washington and Hawke revive some of the energy that made them a great duo in Training Day, but little of it adds either drive or weight to the narrative.

There was certainly potential for a great movie here. The greatest realisation of that potential is the criminally underused Sarsgaard as the overtly evil Bogue. The cast is easily this film’s strongest asset and it’s a shame that Fuqua was unable to take full advantage of it. Still, for some viewers at least, the assemblage of these actors in this setting will be enough. I did like that the film took strides to include greater diversity in its ensemble, incorporating men of different ethnicities who showcase singular styles of fighting. This pays off in the third act when the final battle takes place. What we get here is more than simple horse riding and gunfire. During this climax Billy Rocks brings his knives into the gunfight, the ox-like Jack Thorne bull rushes his foes into submission and Red Harvest looses arrows left, right and centre. The build up towards this fight may have been lacklustre and the major character deaths that follow may not resonate in any meaningful way but, in terms of pure spectacle, it’s still a pretty great climax.

While there isn’t anything substantially wrong with this film, as far as remakes go, there is nothing that allows The Magnificent Seven to stand on its own two feet. Compared to the Sturges’ classic it is a lesser imitation. To even bother comparing it to Kurosawa’s masterpiece would be almost like comparing a finger painting to the ‘Mona Lisa’. It is a sometimes entertaining but ultimately hollow film that feels more like a star vehicle than it does a western. It seemed to me that the film was more interested in cashing in on the ensemble blockbuster trend started by The Avengers than it was in telling a great story. The western setting felt artificial and the movie’s discussion on the themes of honour, justice and sacrifice felt insincere. This film could have been something special, if only it had half of the emotion and depth of the films that influenced it. Instead The Magnificent Seven stands as a picture of unrealised possibility and unfulfilled promise.


Hardcore Henry

Cast: Sharlto Copley, Danila Kozlovsky, Haley Bennett, Tim Roth

Director: Ilya Naishuller

Writer: Ilya Naishuller

This is a film that certainly lives up to its title; hardcore is definitely the word to describe the content of Hardcore Henry. In its attempt to be a movie that looks and feels like a video game Hardcore Henry does not hold back on any count. Naishuller knew exactly what kind of approach he wanted to take with this film and he went for it at a full sprint, guns blazing, and screaming at the top of his lungs. Whatever faults this film might have, and there are a few, I nevertheless want to commend it for the utter commitment given to its format and style. While video game movies are hardly new, none of them have ever gone as far as Hardcore Henry to try and capture the uniquely immersive visual experience of playing a video game. A common criticism used so often in reviews of video game movies that it has practically become a cliché is that they feel more like watching somebody play a video game rather than playing it yourself. Though hardly a perfect movie, I believe that Hardcore Henry has come closer than any other film to capturing that sensation.

The film is viewed entirely in the first-person through the eyes of Henry, who wakes up in a lab on an airship. He is greeted by a scientist called Estelle (Haley Bennett) who reveals that she is his wife and that she has revived and rebuilt him after an accident that has left him amnesiac and mute. Some mercenaries, led by the telekinetic Akan (Danila Kozlovsky), invade the airship and so Henry must make his escape using his new cybernetic body and enhanced abilities. He lands in Moscow where he is separated from his wife before falling into the company of Jimmy (Sharlto Copley). Jimmy is a mysterious figure who seems to understand what is going on and who keeps appearing and reappearing throughout the events of the movie even after meeting a number of gruesome deaths. Through the insanity that ensues Henry must survive the mercenaries being sent after him and solve the mystery of who he is and why he is being targeted.

This film sets out to capture the quality of a first-person shooter which is why it adopts a story that is more action-based than character-driven. The action is intense, relentless and creative but it can also be tiresome and gratuitous. After about 20-30 minutes when you start getting used to the gimmick of the first-person perspective you gradually start to remember that you are in fact watching a movie and not playing a video game. The distinction is important because the issue of immersion is perhaps the greatest challenge facing this film. If the viewer is not actively involved or personally invested in the action, then the gimmick is eventually going to wear off. Since direct participation is impossible, the best the movie can do is provide the viewer with a character they can follow and with whom they can identify. This is where the film falls short. It is common for the protagonists of FPS games to be largely silent and nondescript because it makes it easier for the player to use them as vessels for their own personalities. Since we have no control over Henry however we have no choice but to view him as his own character. The lack of a personality therefore proves to be a great hindrance as it leaves little for the viewer to hold on to.

There is one character in this film who brings much life to the table and that is Jimmy. In what Sharlto Copley has described as his most physically demanding performance to date, Jimmy is a strange man who keeps appearing throughout Henry’s ordeal despite dying time and time again. Each time he reappears he comes with a new look and personality. Over the course of the film we see him as a dutiful army soldier, a cocaine-addicted womaniser, a hippie biker, a song and dance man and many more. It is a truly insane idea for a character which is exactly what you need for an insane movie such as this. However I must say that I wasn’t particularly convinced by the movie’s villain or by Henry’s wife. I found the former to be pretty weak and the latter to be pretty dull. For me it was Jimmy alone who saved this movie from being 90 minutes of mindless violence.

With that said those who watch Hardcore Henry looking for some mindless violence will not be disappointed. Every time Henry comes into a conflict with the human cannon fodder sent by Akan to take him down, the level of action is turned up to eleven. There is blood and explosions aplenty, an immeasurable body count and a variety of weapons and settings used for a good number of imaginative fight scenes. I however was kind of done with the action scenes about halfway through the movie. Without a character or a coherent story to follow I eventually found the action to be almost monotonous in its persistence and endlessness. Nevertheless there are many viewers for whom the story and characters will be entirely irrelevant and they are the ones who will enjoy the movie the most. Overall I’d say that I did enjoy the movie and was certainly impressed by its format but I also think that once was enough. In terms of content there just isn’t enough that warrants a second viewing.