‘The Girl on the Train’ Review: Emily Blunt Can’t Save This Lifeless Thriller
It’s no wonder Paula Hawkins’ debut novel, The Girl on the Train, was quickly pegged “the next Gone Girl,” or that DreamWorks scooped up the film rights a year before the novel hit shelves. It's a murder mystery from the perspective of an unreliable narrator, full of seedy twists and turns. It has all the makings of a hit. But here’s a hot take: Despite topping the bestseller list, Hawkins’ book isn’t very good. Piggybacking on the hype for Gillian Flynn’s work, the novel uses a gimmicky narrative structure to glorify violence. That could’ve worked as a high-intensity thriller, but director Tate Taylor’s (The Help) adaptation bears many of the same shortcomings as the novel, resulting in a sluggish mess of self-seriousness.
Emily Blunt plays the title character, Rachel Watson, an unemployed, depressed alcoholic who commutes into the city each morning so her roommate won’t know she’s lost her job. Every day the train stops in front of the same set of Hudson Valley homes. In Rachel’s old house, her ex-husband Tom (Justin Theroux) now lives with his new wife Anna (Rebecca Ferguson) and their baby. Just a few doors down are Scott (Luke Evans) and Megan Hipwell (Haley Bennett), a couple Rachel grows obsessed with. But her fantasies of their picturesque marriage shatter when Rachel, hung over with messy hair and smeared eyeliner, spots Megan kissing another man on the balcony. On the evening train back, Rachel drunkenly disembarks. She blacks out and wakes up the next morning covered in blood. She can’t remember what happened, but learns Megan Hipwell has gone missing and was last seen the same night Rachel was wandering her street.
The most compelling part of The Girl on the Train is its potential to explore the diverging perspectives of its three female leads. The film, like the book, shifts between the viewpoints of Rachel, Megan, and Anna. Erin Cressida Wilson’s script does a much smoother job moving between these women than its source material, and if it had developed those transitions into a crafty psychological thriller, it could have been a fantastic exorcise in suburban ennui and a feminine fetishization of violence. Alas, that’s not the movie we got.
Instead, Taylor made a cringe-worthy collection of exposition and unimaginative visuals. The filmmaking is so devoid of subtlety and on-the-nose it’s laughable. One shot observes Rachel drunkenly passing a liquor store on her way to a bar while the shadows of mini liquor bottles flash across Blunt’s face and the score rises dramatically – the alcohol, it’s CONSUMING HER! Taylor also tries to dramatize moments with cheesy slow motion close-ups of his actors, and random insert shots of their bodies. There’s more skin in this movie than good acting.
Sometimes bad filmmaking can be pretty entertaining, but this movie has no sense of fun. Taylor approaches the material with a solemnity that makes the performances (or lack thereof) all the more laughable. At one point Rachel kidnaps Anna’s baby, then after staring blankly for a beat or two, she drops it and awkwardly runs away towards the train tracks. It’s a ridiculous moment. Why is she running towards the train? She’s really just going to leave the baby there? No thinking person would react this way! In the brutal final sequence (the only entertaining part of the movie) a character watches a fit of insane violence from her bedroom window, and just stands there, totally expressionless. (It’s worth noting, something similar happens in Hawkins’ novel.)
Where Ferguson and Bennett’s performances are mostly mute staring, Blunt is at least given some material to work with, and she certainly tries her hardest with it. She’s been great in films like Sicaro channeling internal decay and quiet tremors of panic, and she gets to play similar notes here. Blunt gets close to something powerful at times, but in most scenes she verges on caricature, slurring her words, staring dizzily into the camera, and stumbling out of a bathroom. It’s Drunk Acting 101, and Blunt’s more talented than that.
There are some things about The Girl on the Train that work better in the movie than the book. Taylor and Wilson’s rearrangement of major plot points make for a much clearer narrative that’s easier to follow. It also sets up a much more surprising twist, which arrives in a jolt, the first time the film finally comes to life. The flashbacks, jumps between character perspectives, and Rachel’s shards of hazy blackout memories are also more compelling when shown onscreen than on the page. But Taylor’s film lacks the suspense required of a thriller. It’s a cheap exploitation of the horrors of alcoholism, depression, and domestic abuse that thinks it’s much smarter and artsier than it is.