The opening scenes of The Girl on the Train place emphasis on three women: Rachel (played by Emily Blunt), an alcoholic; Megan (played by Haley Bennett), an unhappy nanny; and Anna (played by Rebecca Ferguson), the “other woman” who married Rachel’s ex-husband (Justin Theroux). The women are profoundly connected, both in proximity and the self destructive ways they’ve carried out their lives. When one of them turns up dead, the sad, defeated Rachel appears to be the most obvious suspect.
Blunt’s superb, discomforting performance elevates this somewhat unsatisfying thriller, based on the popular bestseller by Paula Hawkins. A key problem is the often lackadaisical approach by director Tate Taylor, whose previous work was The Help. Resembling the structure of the novel, The Girl on the Train has multiple flashbacks, halting the narrative with sudden title cards announcing events that occurred months or years ago. Taylor should have created a visual style that discerns the many flashbacks from the present day scenes. As is, every scene is shot in the same drab, overcast and unappealing manner.
Comparisons have been made to Gone Girl, which is similarly about domestic horrors but is a vastly different film. In terms of the filmmaking, acting and storytelling, David Fincher’s take on Gone Girl is superior. Taylor’s film has strong qualities but is nowhere near as erotic, brilliantly crafted and truly shocking as Fincher’s. The mystery of The Girl on the Train is a good one, though too many characters are on hand to provide a red herring and few of them have inner lives.
The sharpest quality is how the story, both overtly and in terms of metaphor, is about our invasive society. We see how, in today’s definition of modern relationships, stalking someone online, recording unfortunate conversations and attempting to break someone’s password is commonplace. So is the way Rachel views the world from a train: she’s scanning people she doesn’t know, living vicariously through imagery that isn’t her own and not partaking in her own life. Rachel is a voyeur, in the same way the internet makes us all peeping toms into the lives of others and, oddly enough, our own. Rachel’s eventual growth is revealed to be looking at the journey ahead and not gazing hungrily at the lives of those the train passes. It’s a worthwhile subject matter that isn’t fully developed.
Instead of the central whodunit revealing a shocking culprit, the resolution underwhelms. Since all of these characters are vaguely sinister, fairly unlikable and flush with secrets and lives of moral compromise, just about any of them could be the murderer. The final confrontation is likely nerve-rattling on the written page but, on film, it’s not as thrilling as it should be.
It helps that the cast is so well chosen. Mission: Impossible-Rogue Nation scene-stealer Ferguson is exceptional as Rachel’s personal nemesis and Lisa Kudrow is especially strong. Another stand-out is Danny Elfman’s effective score, which is both beautiful and dread-inducing.
There’s an unguarded quality to Blunt’s acting. She’s not reaching for an Oscar or showing off. This is a brave turn that displays the tortured layers to her haunted character. Rachel both drew me in and made me uncomfortable, a testament to Blunt’s effectiveness. The performances by everyone are excellent but the characters are mostly one-note and thinly crafted.
There are compelling scenes throughout, a fairly engaging mystery at the center and Blunt’s phenomenal performance to recommend it. Still, The Girl on the Train is never as stylish and engrossing as it needed to be.
Two and a Half Stars