Taken For a Rideby Michael Fox February 4, 2014
By Michael Fox
It takes confidence and even audacity to weave the testimony of a Holocaust survivor into the plot of a psychological thriller—or any fiction film, for that matter.
The risk of trivializing the suffering of millions is continually present, with the possibility that the audience will blast the filmmaker for fortifying his work with unearned gravitas.
So give props to Larry Brand, the writer and director of “The Girl On the Train,” for sidestepping those pitfalls and pulling off a thought-provoking and potentially controversial rumination on our eagerness to believe stories. The audience is taken for a ride, along with the main character, and our susceptibility (gullibility?) is held up for review, although not ridicule.
Danny (Henry Ian Cusick of “Lost”) is a documentary maker recently preoccupied with the idea of fate and chance meetings. New Yorkers are skeptics by nature, but a twinkle-eyed survivor named Morris Herzman has mesmerized the filmmaker (whose accent indicates he’s from the other side of the Atlantic) with his remarkable saga.
Herzman (the excellent David Margulies) recounts his deportation to the camps, and how his father nudged him to the side of the car where it was cooler and he could snatch an occasional breath of fresh air. This allowed young Morris to somehow glimpse a girl through the slats when the train made a brief stop, and for her to miraculously drop a gold cross into his hand.
As Morris tells it (to Danny but really to us), this precious gift—or act of kindness, or symbol that pockets of humanity still existed—gave him the determination to live.
We can understand how Morris’ experience might inspire Danny with the seductive notion that a fleeting encounter with a stranger could switch his life from one track to another. So when Danny sees a young woman (Nicki Aycox) on a train who he’d previously “encountered” in the midst of crowd scenes he’d shot, he doesn’t let the opportunity pass to introduce himself.
“The Girl On the Train” plays out in an extended flashback as Danny relates his version of events to a detective (Stephen Lang) in an interrogation room. Needless to say, things didn’t unfold quite the way Danny had intended or expected. He believed what he wanted to believe about the girl’s circumstances, and leapt to conclusions, and he’s lucky the end of the line wasn’t, you know, the end of the line.
“The Girl On the Train,” which clocks in at a tidy 80 minutes including credits, should not to be confused with the unsettling 2009 French film inspired by the sensational case of a non-Jewish woman who alleged she was attacked by Arab youths who carved a swastika on her stomach.
There’s an epilogue to Morris’ story, however, that raises questions a good deal more serious than anything engendered by Danny’s adventure. The movie can’t be construed as a form of Holocaust denial—lowlifes who believe the genocide didn’t take place already have all the “evidence” they need, anyway—but a sly poke at just how eager we are to embrace happy endings. In that regard, “The Girl On the Train” is a reverse twist on a fairy tale.
For Larry Brand, whose career has been largely devoted to scaring the daylights out of audiences with horror and slasher flicks, this film hops a ride in the opposite direction. Instead of inviting us to fear the worst, it needles us about expecting the best.