“My husband used to tell me I have an overactive imagination…”
The idea at the core of The Girl on the Train is equal parts provocative and relatable: a lonely commuter observes an attractive couple from a distance and imagines what their seemingly perfect lives must be like. Anyone who’s ever done any people-watching will recognize the appeal of inventing a backstory for a stranger, and the story is a healthy reminder that things are never quite what they seem from the outside. But despite a powerhouse lead performance, this Train is ultimately derailed by an unsatisfying mystery and a lack of flair that causes this potentially juicy story to lose steam as it chugs along.
“What is it with you crazy women?”
The story is told from the perspective of three women. Rachel (Emily Blunt) is the titular Girl, who rides a train into New York City on a daily basis. It soon becomes clear that Rachel has a severe drinking problem she blames for the demise of her marriage. That’s also part of the reason she becomes enchanted with the picture-perfect couple she observes from her window seat on the train. Megan (Haley Bennett) is the female half of that couple, and we soon realize she’s not anywhere near as happy as she seems from the outside looking in. The action flashes back six months to show her struggles with satisfying husband Scott (Luke Evans) and his desire to have children. Megan also visits a therapist (Edgar Ramirez) to cope with a past trauma and works as a babysitter for the couple that lives a few houses down. Anna (Rebecca Ferguson) is the relatively new mother that Megan works for. She also has her own friendly-faced hubby in Tom (Justin Theroux). Anna dotes on her daughter while dealing with steady harassment from Tom’s envious and disturbed ex.
One day, Rachel catches a glimpse of Megan in the arms of another man, which gives her unpleasant echoes of her own failed relationship. She ends up falling off the wagon and has a fateful encounter with Megan inside a tunnel that is interrupted by an alcohol-fueled blackout. When Rachel wakes up, she is bruised and covered in blood. Meanwhile, Megan has gone missing and Rachel becomes directly involved in the investigation into her disappearance. She pretends to be a longtime friend of Megan’s and visits both Megan’s distraught husband and her therapist. Rachel also eventually crosses paths with Anna and Tom.
The Girl on the Train is based on the novel of the same name by British author Paula Hawkins. The buzzy book debuted atop the New York Times Best Seller list last year, so a film adaptation was a no-brainer. The task ended up falling to Tate Taylor, who previously (and successfully) brought a beloved book to the big screen with 2011’s The Help. Unfortunately, it’s a different best-seller that looms largest over The Girl on the Train, and the comparison is ultimately unflattering.
It’s hard not to compare The Girl on the Train to Gillian Flynn’s “Gone Girl”, another twisty mystery that revolved around a missing female protagonist. And it just so happens that book was also adapted into a high-profile movie that was released during the first week of October a couple of years ago. I didn’t read “The Girl on the Train”, so I can’t say for sure how it stacks up versus Flynn’s biting narrative. But having seen both Train and David Fincher’s sharp, stylish Gone Girl, the newer film feels especially lacking.
Part of the problem is that an enormous amount of the narrative burden is placed on Rachel trying to recover memories from her blackouts. Rachel is not only an unreliable narrator because the reader/viewer can’t trust her, but she also can’t rely on her own mind. Taylor uses a variety of filmmaking tricks to convey Rachel’s disorientation (intentionally choppy editing, slow motion and other forms of distortion), but those become a bit tiresome and repetitive after a while. The emphasis on Rachel’s quest to unlock her own past also shifts the focus away from Megan and Anna, who were promising personalities in the beginning. And speaking of shifting focus away from something, The Girl on the Train — Erin Cressida Wilson wrote the screenplay — transplants Hawkins’ story from London and its surrounding suburbs to New York for no particular reason. (Yet Rachel, as played by Blunt, confoundingly remains a Brit.) It’s not a huge deal, but it is a bit emblematic of the lack of attention to detail throughout this movie.
On the other hand, The Girl on the Train is still worth a look thanks to the outstanding performance at its center. The stunning Blunt should be no one’s first choice to play a broken down woman who has let herself go, but the actress convincingly portrays the messiness of Rachel’s inner and outer lives. The Girl on the Train does good job of revealing the root cause of Rachel’s alcoholism and mental instability. The movie tries to do the same (to a lesser extent) with Megan, but the narrative is simply too Rachel-focused for it to make a significant impact. Early on, Bennett’s performance comes off as too detached and disinterested, but it becomes more effective once we realize why the character is wary of starting her own family. Bennett’s/Megan’s portion of the story still doesn’t pack the same wallop it could have, but she still fares better than Ferguson, an impressive performer who is forced too far into the background for my taste.
The men in the story are mostly stuck playing varying shades of wounded pride, although Theroux is the only one that gets to display more than one dimension. The most impressive supporting performance actually comes from Allison Janney as the no-nonsense detective who zeroes in on Rachel after Megan’s disappearance. Her Detective Riley is by far the sharpest person in the movie and Janney appears to be the only performer — and perhaps the only person involved with the making of this movie — who got the memo that this sort of twisty mystery works best when it also provides a sense of kicky fun.