A faulty movie tackles film’s favorite flaw.
Popular culture romanticizes alcoholism as often as being a single writer in a major city. In film especially, there’s suffering at the bottom of a bottle that comes to us scrubbed clean of any biology or psychology. We see the vice in the same antiseptic dimension that’s made smoking look so damn cool since Don Draper’s predecessor was selling it to us.
Chugging a bottle of vodka and blearily slamming out the Great American Novel is one of the great artistic lies our culture encourages. Alcoholic protagonists, as opposed to their drug-addicted kin, become tragic heroes with a more tidy sense of martyrdom than those who’ve died participating on one side or the other in the War on Drugs.
Alcoholics are usually redeemed, “cured”, or otherwise steered away from fates as dour as the Requiem for a Dream kids. Or they pull something like 1980’s The Shining, where the main character Jack’s alcoholism is subtle, symbolized by the increasing horrors around him.
It could be that studios (or the director) didn’t want to have an outright alcoholic protagonist or perhaps they deemed it scarier if his demons manifested as fantastic apparitions and in the spiraling mental states of his wife and child. Either way, the film blames Jack’s descent on more supernatural reasoning than mere alcohol, which was the autobiographical element that Stephen King felt so attached to that it colored his entire response to (and widely publicized criticism of) Stanley Kubrick’s adaptation.
With The Girl on the Train’s sloppy suburban sleuth continuing a cycle of misbegotten cinematic alcoholics, placing it in thematic context may help us understand just why it feels so wrong.
Here’s a fun fact: in 1983, all five Best Actor nominees played drunks.
Some films glamorize them, some fear them, and most redeem them, but all films respect the actors who take these roles. The most common trait of both male and female Oscar nominees is playing addicts ‐ it gives plenty of opportunity for tragic heroism and “more acting” which many know usually translates to “best acting”.
Leaving Las Vegas, the novel that became the 1995 film of the same name for which Nicolas Cage won the Best Actor Oscar, is often written of as author John O’Brien’s suicide note. A final attempt at taking control over something controlling him. A fictional idealized death to live in as the reality of addiction mangled him alive.
O’Brien’s sister told The Fix, “[a] man who goes to Vegas and fades away in his sleep with a beautiful woman at his side? John’s death was nothing like that.”
Leaving Las Vegas is a movie about a writer (Cage) who chooses slow suicide by drinking himself to death. He loses or sells everything to make way for booze, then moves to Las Vegas (the only city whose liquor regulations are tolerable enough for someone needing a 24-hour fix) with a plan for death.
Ultimately redeemed, he becomes romantically involved with a prostitute and dies with her acceptance and love.
In Los Angeles, O’Brien committed suicide by gunshot two weeks after learning that Leaving Las Vegas was to be made into a movie.
The severe chemical shock and shaking delirium tremens come through with Cage as strongly as they can, showing withdrawal at its most pathetic. He can’t sign a check and makes excuses out of shame. We empathize with his desperation, with what once passed as his charm, now drowning beneath a vodka sea.
We like Cage. He’s a realistic drunk who we understand from the inside and still, somehow want to spend a whole movie with. Ray Milland in The Lost Weekend is observed ‐ he’s subject matter ‐ while Cage is our worst selves.
It’s difficult to craft a watchable story ‐ and get it past Hollywood executives ‐ of addiction. Romanticism seems to deaden our reaction to the booze, something we’re not meant to be shocked too badly by. It’s a flaw our characters can overcome as easily as lecherous tendencies in a romantic comedy or a criminal past in a noir.
For the first hour at least, Emily Blunt’s Rachel Watson is the latest lead to need Alcoholics Anonymous in the screen adaptation of The Girl on the Train. When we first meet Rachel, she seems a bit off but we don’t know why. Her addiction is a reveal held off only for a moment, near enough to the title card that this struggle is inexorable from her character in our first impressions. Alcoholic in appearance as well as in action, her wet red eyes and ruddy nose compliment her shaking hands as our eyes wander from her scribbled lipstick to its sources.
She drinks from a water bottle of vodka, filled with liters or nips, as she draws the countryside whizzing past her train window. We learn of her daydreams which seem retroactively fueled by this constant supply of liquor.
Her alcoholism is shown as a character trait, her defining and consuming quality, until she becomes wrapped up in the plot and the mystery supersedes her personal problems. Her hazy blackout becomes the ultimate clue to be cracked, her alcoholism driving the story rather than fighting it at every step like Billy Bob Thornton’s in Bad Santa.
That film takes his character, with all his Bad qualities, and gives him the drunken romanticized male equivalent of the hooker’s golden heart. He might piss himself at work and break a bottle on a plastic reindeer, but he’ll stand up to a child’s bully. He may not have sobriety, but his redemption comes with an even neater bow. Will Ferrell’s character in Everything Must Go gets both after a similarly blackout-focused (yet offscreen) inciting incident ‐ redemption via child and kicks the booze.
Crazy Heart’s Otis “Bad” Blake (Jeff Bridges) quits the sauce, as does Flight’s “Whip” Whitaker (Denzel Washington). These two poorly nicknamed alcoholics may not be heroes by the end of their movies, but they certainly become admirable after encounters with women and children.
Because big studio films rarely have alcoholic women as prominent characters, let alone protagonists ‐ drug addicts or battered women who turn to drink maybe, but hardly ever high-functioning leads with any sense of agency ‐ alcoholism in cinema is almost always a romanticized male addiction. However, these characters seem to work for their changes.
Their alcoholism is the movie. The Girl on the Train has it as color.
Worse, it’s an inconsistent tint that fades in and out at the film’s choosing. Rachel attends a brief AA meeting that becomes her one encounter with sobriety, or at least the typical steps people take to sobriety. After that, she refuses drinks and has no problem fitting into the world. Her hands may tremble a bit, but she’s getting by.
There’s a mystery to solve, by God. Her rosacea fades to white as her inner struggle becomes blander and blander.
The other movies I’ve mentioned have used alcoholism as a source of conflict: Santa can’t work around kids if he’s stumbling drunk and that captain sure as hell can’t fly a plane like that. Even Hancock’s Will Smith is a worse superhero when he’s been drinking.
In the book, Rachel’s alcoholism grows out of a self-medicated solution to depression. This, we learn, comes from her inability to conceive. This sequence of emotional events, of synaptic, logical, and hormonal moves, is absent in the film because we don’t see any characters’ inner lives beyond another character’s conversations with her therapist ‐ Tate Taylor’s inelegant solution to shoehorning inner drama into a movie of boring outer discussion.
When researching this piece, I found out just how many sober support forums and family groups reference these kinds of movies against their own experiences. Mothers and wives relate to the “codie” of Jason Bateman’s PR guy in Hancock. He’s the co-dependent fixer who allows Hancock’s behavior to continue. Some are Bateman. Some are Will Smith. Some see themselves or their husbands in Cage’s bottomed-out inner hell in Leaving Las Vegas.
Will anyone see themselves in The Girl on the Train’s Rachel, whose alcoholism seems like a personality garnish to instigate a plot? If anything, the film seems to suggest that there’s something worse than romanticizing alcoholism ‐ trivializing it.