The Girl on the Train delivers mildly interesting voyeurism, at best.
The Girl on the Train is a cluttered thriller that introduces so many threads and themes that even director Tate Taylor can’t keep them straight. Taylor dabbles promisingly in exploitation and melodrama, but his story lacks the urgency and focus needed to titillate audiences. Though much has been written comparing this film to Fincher’s salacious Gone Girl, they couldn’t be more dissimilar in tone, context, and execution. The Girl on the Train has a one-way ticket to boredom.
The Girl on the Train is a convoluted mystery-thriller that intertwines the stories of three women, all of whom are drowning in their own lies. Rachel (Emily Blunt) is a two-fisted alcoholic who occupies her daily train commute into New York by sipping booze out of a giant water bottle and spying on the houses that flash past her window.
“I’m not the girl I used to be,” she laments, as her busy pencil fills an artist’s sketchbook with the half-remembered dreams of her own life and the voyeuristic fantasies she concocts for passersby. She’s particularly fascinated by a young couple named Megan (Haley Bennett) and Scott (Luke Evans), who are partial to intense displays of public affection on their balcony.
The fantasy world that Rachel constructs for Megan and Scott is immediately shattered when we zoom into Megan’s tortured subconscious. We learn about her past sins and current debaucheries through a series of boring therapy sessions with the impossibly dashing Dr. Abdic (Édgar Ramírez). Not to be outdone, Rachel later schedules her own therapy seasons with the good doctor, who prefers to counsel patients in the comfort of his own home.
There is, perhaps, no lazier or less dramatic way to learn about people than on a therapist’s couch. What may have worked perfectly well in Paula Hawkins’ source novel feels stilted and contrived when stretched to the big screen. No number of flashbacks and vertiginous camera angles can hide the static nature of these scenes. It’s probably safe to say that Tony Soprano and Dr. Melfi ruined psychotherapy as a cinematic device for the next 20 years or so.
The third woman in our dysfunctional triumvirate is Anna (Rebecca Ferguson). She lives two doors down from Megan and, coincidentally, is married to Rachel’s ex-husband, Tom (Justin Theroux). They seem to have it all, including one of those ‘movie babies’ that never cries and only appears when the script requires it. Rachel visualizes hurting Anna in all sorts of nasty ways, most of which involve kitchen cutlery that would terrify even Julia Child. It’s a delightfully lurid setup that leaves you salivating over the tasteless mayhem that surely awaits.
But a funny thing happens on the way to exploitation paradise; the story loses all sense of urgency and focus.
Blunt certainly does her part. She’s terrific as the disheveled Rachel; a live wire who thinks nothing of cavorting with both of the leading suspects in a murder investigation. Had director Tate Taylor (Get on Up, The Help) and his screenwriter Erin Cressida Wilson remained focused on Rachel’s fading sanity, The Girl on the Train might have delivered all the squirmy fun that it promised.
Instead, they give us a God’s eye view into everyone’s life. This particular God is somewhat myopic, however, as his view often neglects pertinent information in order to preserve a twisty ending. Characters intentionally deceive us by concealing their true personalities; character transformation on cue, if you will. It’s the type of cinematic cheating that always feels trite and manipulative (see: anything directed by M. Night Shyamalan in the last 15 years).
Worse still, nothing really happens while each character is waiting around to reveal their secrets. Rachel mostly bumbles around in a semi-drunken stupor, trying desperately to remember the events of the fateful night in question. Anna mopes around the house and frets about Rachel’s drunken phone calls. Megan gets to have a bit more fun, openly seducing her therapist and frolicking in various states of undress. Most of this plot wrangling (even the nakedness) is painfully listless. Mostly, you just sit there wishing you had a remote control that could fast-forward to the good stuff.
Thematically, Taylor is all over the place. He lays a solid foundation to examine the intricacies of motherhood, as Rachel, Anna, and Megan are all consumed by unhealthy baby obsessions. None of this character detailing amounts to more than a tired plot point, however, as Taylor loses interest in his message once the action (finally) starts.
There is some potentially interesting stuff about infantilization and gas-lighting, but again, it emerges too late in the story to add any subtext. You could argue that Taylor’s omniscient perspective employs a Rashomon effect to underscore the dangers of self-deception. The technique is so haphazardly applied, though, that it feels like a clumsy attempt to artificially complicate what is an otherwise wafer-thin story.
Taylor’s failure to sustain a consistent mood is, again, attributed to his choice of the omniscient perspective. Blunt’s Rachel is the heart and soul of the piece, but we’re constantly distracted by the less interesting storylines of Anna and Megan. Taylor is unable to maintain the tension between these threads, either narratively or visually. Unlike his obvious inspiration, Gone Girl, Taylor fails to translate the story’s inherent sleaze into something evocative or compelling. Without the vision and focus of a demanding artist like Fincher at the helm, The Girl on the Train ascends to mildly interesting voyeurism, at best.
Perhaps calling The Girl on the Train an endurance test is a bit too harsh. Emily Blunt certainly proves herself one of our most versatile and interesting actors. Ferguson, also, continues to establish herself, and Bennett delivers a brave performance as a confused sexual manipulator. The problem isn’t the performances, but the execution. This is simply one of those films that didn’t find the best way to tell its story.