Crazy Women in Movies

E! Illustration/Mara Soldinger

This weekend, audiences will flock to theaters for the onscreen adaptation of Paula Hawkins' haunting, disturbing, depressing and altogether riveting novel The Girl on the Train. They'll flock because they're suckers for a good disappearance mystery, they'll flock because the trailer's eerie, shadowy-y vibe is just what they're craving once the month of October hits, they'll flock because they love Emily Blunt.

But most of The Girl on the Train's buzz stems from its still-flying-off-the-shelves off screen counterpart. The flick is based off the aforementioned author's creepy and occasionally infuriatingly puzzling novel, which landed in bookstores during the early weeks of 2015 and quickly became a bestseller. It got right to the heart of the book club and water cooler culture, the new Gone Girl in every way. Choosing not to read The Girl on the Train was choosing not to participate in animated discussions before hot yoga, during workplace elevator rides and at any event with wine, ever.

It was these qualities that led it to break sales records, and, not so surprisingly, find itself optioned for its own Hollywood revival—if it can be considered a revival if filming starts while the printing press is still hot. 

Impressive sales history aside, the most prescient part of Train is the story—and the woman (don't let the catchy title fool you; she's fully a woman) at the center of it all. The movie follows Rachel Watson (Blunt), who is literally coming apart at the seams. She's nowhere near closure over a divorce two years ago, she's a full-blown alcoholic, and she spends her days guzzling vodka out of a water bottle as she rides the Metro North from her idyllic Hudson Valley town to a PR job at which she is no longer employed.

Minor (very minor) spoilers be damned, she's found herself in this predicament after a very sad bout of infertility; cue the drinking, plus outbursts, plus horrible fights with her then-husband (played Justin Theroux...hubba hubba). He's now married to a perfectly Westchester woman and lives in Rachel's old house with their new baby, mere blocks away from where Rachel is crashing with a pseudo-friend. Aside from her daily obsessing over what went wrong with her marriage and minor stalking of the new wife and baby, Rachel spends her time watching yet another seemingly-perfect couple who happen to live along the Metro North tracks. 

One day Rachel notices the wifely half of this second couple in a passionate embrace with another man, followed shortly by her disappearance a few day's later. Toss in the fact that Rachel came home drunk and covered in blood the night the wife went missing and can't remember a thing about it, and you've got yourself a murder mystery.

Emily Blunt, The Girl on the Train

Courtesy Universal

Regardless of one's feelings about the now oft-repeated missing-woman trope or about book-to-movie adaptations or even the quality of The Girl on the Train itself, there's no denying that Rachel Watson is incredibly intriguing. She's entertaining to watch yet maddeningly flawed. She's absolutely bats--t crazy. And to top it off, she's bolstered by Blunt, who we stand to argue is the most perfectly cast actress for this flick.

Rachel also happens to be just the latest in a long line of "crazy" (and crazy...no quotes necessary) starring roles that we find ourselves fighting for. Maybe it's because a flawed woman is far more preferable to watching another agreeable wife or one-dimensional bimbo. Regardless, it's worth looking at the path that got us here, and how that path should be walked going forward.

Of course, the trope doesn't always work the way it should, so it's worth starting off with a brief nod to the bad apples. 

Let's be clear first: It's easy for movies to descend into stereotypes of crazy women. When you're talking about scorned ex-lovers (and movies typically are), the result is often...let's just say unfair. But to us, two standouts in the dear-God-I-can't-believe-that's-a-real-character category are Leighton Meester in The Roommate and Erica Christensen in Swimfan. Neither of these flicks are award-winning material, but it's almost laughable how truly insane those characters are. 

For Meester's part, she plays (shocking twist!) a roommate who becomes obsessed with Minka Kelly to the point of stalking, murdering and the like, all the while never admitting or recognizing the fact that she and Minka are exact twins. Not once in the movie do they address that the stalker and stalkee are replicas of one another to the point of hilarity, and that is the movie's greatest fault. Christensen's crazed fan just had zero surprises whatsoever. She's the new girl in town (duh), she befriends her stalkee's mom (obviously), she keeps a shrine of his personal belongings (of course), and she kills the first person who starts to catch onto her (why wouldn't she).

Gone Girl

Courtesy 20th Century Fox

When it comes to the crazy lady success stories, Gone Girl's Amy Dunne is probably the quickest to come to mind these days—although she wasn't nearly the first. Way back in 1987, before most millennials were but a glimmer in their parents' eyes, Glenn Close was starring in Fatal Attraction. Consider her the O.G. to all the Swimfan-esque remakes, so even though her acts of crazy don't amount to much more than your now-usual incessant phone calls, threats, befriending the actual spouse while pretending to be someone else, animal sacrifices and fake pregnancies, she was truly terrifying. All unstable movie characters afterwards simply wished they could be as unstable as she. Once you boil a child's pet bunny, there's no going back.

A wholly different complicated character was one Angelina Jolie's Girl, Interrupted. Far from being a role model, she is held up as a beacon of complicated female roles. It was 1999, not exactly a hallmark period for gender parity in Hollywood, yet an entire thought-provoking movie was based around her every flaw and quirk—and the flaws and quirks of all the girls at Claymore, for that matter. Crazy male characters had R.P. McMurphy from One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, among dozens of others, and Jolie gave women Lisa. The role nabbed her an Oscar nom, but its real gift was in showing the movie industry that audiences (and critics) had room for imperfect (very, very imperfect) women.

Fast-forward a decade to Black Swan, one of the first memorable movies in which two ladies actually competed for the prize of most unstable. Of course Natalie Portman's Nina wins; it's hard to beat the most lifelike (and nightmare-inducing) hallucinations to hit the big screen. One can never un-see a person actually sprouting the feathers of a black swan, and we have Lily to thank for all those goose bumps and nights of no sleep. There was hardly a man to be found in the award-winning flick, and the one we did see (the ballet company's director) was as sleazy as he was boring compared to the multi-faceted and multi-personalitied Portman.

The early 2010s were good for crazy ladies, because Lisbeth Salander followed shortly thanks to The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo. Speaking of O.G.s, she (and her off screen counterpart Rooney Mara) was basically the first Mr. Robot. She eschewed society, she hacked computers, she enacts revenge in a way we wouldn't exactly, um, endorse? We could write an entirely different essay dedicated to her subversion of gender norms (and beauty standards), so let's just say she cray and we love it.

All these women culminated in Gone Girl and The Girl on the Train, two movies and movie heroines which would probably loathe to be compared to one another yet are inevitably linked in their similarities. Amy Dunne was bats--t incarnate, and it was all the more admirable that we could actually find things to like and relate to in a person who fakes her own murder just to get back at her husband, and then subsequently seduces him again. (Whoops, should we have thrown out a spoiler alert?).

We loved Amy Dunne as a character not only because, frankly, if anyone deserved to be framed for murder it was Nick, but also because she pointed out—literally—everything that gets old about "non-crazy" women in film. She hated to be the cool girl, to be the one who was without a care in the world and always had a perfect blowout, who ate endless pieces of pizza and never gained weight. Gone Girl was as meta as it gets, its main character describing to the audiences exactly why they should appreciate her flaws. 

And now here we are, facing down a weekend in which Emily Blunt finally gets liberated from her decorative roles and gets to be a star, unattractive personality and under-eye bags and all. It could be that the secret to keeping this trend going lies in continuing to adapt books to film—after all, it's authors who have the time and the creativity to dream up truly fascinating and truly crazy characters—but we're happy as long as we get our steady stream of OMG moments. 

Long live the crazies.

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