Part of me would like to think The Girl on the Train is in on the joke. Here’s a film that no doubt understands how silly its story is, but happily lets the three main female cast members channel plenty of energy to provide strong performances. It manages to feature men these women obsess over, yet all the guys featured are as bland as plain wallpaper. Regardless, The Girl on the Train seems bent on delivering a mystery/thriller out of these ingredients. Placing the preposterousness of this story aside, however, the biggest issue is how dull the film is.
Based on the hit novel by Paula Hawkins (which I have not read), this film adaptation from director Tate Taylor (The Help) and screenwriter Erin Cressida Wilson (Men, Women & Children) makes it very clear that we are watching a story generally fit for trashy airport novels come to life. The difference is the film lacks what I can only assume is the clever prose and clearer details that make up the acclaimed novel by Hawkins. While a novel can place focus on the minds of various characters, a film is constrained by time and needs more (studio-friendly) direction. Sadly, The Girl on the Train: The Movie opts for a messy approach that adheres to a trippy mystery format.
Emily Blunt stars as Rachel, an alcoholic who rides the train daily, fantasizing about the relationship of her former neighbors. One of these neighbors is Megan (Haley Bennett), who works as the nanny for Rachel’s former husband Tom (Justin Theroux) and his new wife (former mistress) Anna (Rebecca Ferguson). For the sake of namechecking the rest of the cast, we also have Luke Evans as Scott, Megan’s domineering husband, and Edgar Ramirez as Megan’s bearded psychiatrist, Dr. Abdic. The story kicks into gear when Megan goes missing and Rachel feels she is involved somehow, as she is prone to getting blackout drunk and doing crazy things while in this state.
Rather than makes things easy on himself (and the audience), Taylor awkwardly sets up this film through the use of multiple voice-over narrations by the three main women, even though the film clearly belongs to Rachel. An awkward flashback structure is also deployed, making sure key elements are discovered when the film decides it is time, rather than allowing for more organic reveals. Since the film adopts a missing person mystery as the motivation for Rachel, with less and less concern for her mental state as the film carries on, we are placed in an irritating corner where the story only has a mystery because of unreliable narration and purposefully holding back things we could know, given the perspective the film has.
A stronger film would realize it is not the first time we’ve seen a mystery like this on screen and would counter the melodrama and obvious elements with either some form of satire or much stronger meditation on who these women are. Rather than seeing more of how the husbands come to define who they are presently, a better handle on this story could delve deeper or at least spend time focusing on Rachel’s afflictions and the other ways she has been damaged. To its credit, Blunt digs into the role of a flawed female protagonist, but it only decides to take that so far when it comes time for her to be pro-active.
So no, we really do not get more interesting layers for these characters. It does not take away from how strong Ferguson, Bennett and particularly Blunt are in their roles, but they can only do so much to help a film that plods along on the rails of a traditional thriller. Making matters worse is the detail work. The Girl on the Train utilizes nothing all that creative beyond a variety of ways to show the same train traveling, with editing choices that would be considered hip and a score by Danny Elfman that plays around with tones and coffee shop techno. It’s this lack of a directorial obsession over details and stylistic appeal that mutes the silly story’s chances to at least be aesthetically entertaining.
As a result, we have a dull film on our hands. The various main characters can only offer up so much. There is also a strange sense of logic around supporting players Allison Janney as a Detective and Laura Prepon as a best friend (sister?), as they would easily be more interesting as imaginary characters created by Rachel’s mentally unstable mind, rather than characters only around when the script needs some tension or a person to bounce dialogue off. That’s reaching a bit towards a new direction, but when the girl on the train describes herself as someone with an overactive imagination, it is pretty disappointing to watch a film with the exact opposite problem. Rather than go off the rails, The Girl on the Train just rides around in lackluster circles.