Here’s a mystery: what happens when you take a best-selling, page-turning, jaw-clenching psychological thriller, put it in the hands of a talented director, and cast the absolute perfect person to play the complex central role? In the case of The Girl on the Train, you get a predictably excellent performance from Emily Blunt, and a whole lot of bullshit.
If we were to treat the making of The Girl on the Train, the seriously disappointing adaptation of Paula Hawkins’s blockbuster novel, as a whodunnit, there’d be plenty of places where one might lay the blame. Is it screenwriter Erin Cressida Wilson, who was so able to balance pathos and humor in Secretary but seems incapable of doing the same here? Is it Hawkins herself, who perhaps wrote a novel that’s great on the page — and only on the page? Is it director Tate Taylor, who seems unaware that his film strays so far into melodrama that audiences may (and, during at least one screening, did) laugh during the ostensibly thrilling conclusion?
Well, one thing is clear: the only crime being perpetrated by Emily Blunt is in her walking away with the entire movie (or nearly so). Even that’s a minor charge, given that Blunt’s character sits at the film’s sour heart. Rachel, the titular train-rider, drunkenly commutes daily to and from New York City, a route that winds so close to her former home that she can catch glimpses of her ex-husband Tom (Justin Theroux) and his new wife Anna (Rebecca Ferguson, largely misused). Rachel attempts to distract herself from this understandably upsetting sight by fantasizing instead about a couple who lives just down the street, who she calls Jess (actually Megan, played by Haley Bennett) and Jason (Scott, played by Luke Evans). When Rachel sees Jess/Megan embracing another man, she goes off the rails, so to speak, and when Megan turns up missing a few days later, Rachel’s tendency to get blackout drunk becomes a matter of life and death. Oh, what a drunken web we weave.
The film’s flaws aside (those will come later), Blunt’s performance is a hell of a thing, wholly lacking in vanity and brimming with honest, ugly feeling. She earns the audience’s empathy for Rachel, even as they want to dump cold water over her head and wake her the hell up. Blunt ricochets between guilt, rage, shame, sorrow, determination, fear, and very bad headaches with such frequency that it’s close to impossible to imagine any other actor pulling it off. Hell, it’s hard to imagine Blunt pulling it off. Yet she does, and admirably. The biggest crime of The Girl on the Train is that it’s likely to rob her of any chance at awards season buzz. Too bad — if anything, the subpar film in which it exists makes her performance all the more remarkable.
But subpar it is. The Girl on the Train will make a hell of a midnight movie someday, filled to the brim with earnest intentions and utterly lacking in nuance. Wilson and Taylor seem determined to hammer home the book’s themes with all the subtlety of a baseball bat, making it clear that nearly everyone who encounters the three central women of the story — Anna, Rachel, and Megan — treats them badly, and is able to do so because they’re female. That’s true of the way they treat each other, as well: Rachel blames Anna, not Tom, for the affair that ended her marriage; Megan turns up her nose at Anna, a stay-at-home mother, for not working; Anna immediately suspects Rachel in Megan’s disappearance and seems incapable of empathy. To top it all off, the lead detective on the case (Allison Janney) seems to think very little of the lot of them, an opinion she makes no attempt to hide.
Nothing wrong with that. There’s a story to be told there about judgment and emotional abuse and gaslighting and the like. But Wilson and Taylor seem to be very concerned that audiences won’t get it unless they paint it on a damn billboard, right down to a menacing male character spouting “you crazy women!” as he prepares to do something totally crazy. That’s pretty bad, but what makes it worse is that it’s the second time in the film where it happens.
Worse still, it isn’t merely the men in the story who treat these women badly. The film itself does, taking the book’s thoughtful, multi-layered characters and rendering them as mere sketches. Blunt dodges that particular bullet, but Ferguson and Bennett spend a lot of time playing right into the tropes the story hopes to dismiss. Bennett gets both the best and the worst of it, delivering a heartrending monologue near the film’s conclusion with admirable restraint, but also spending much of the film flouncing about her shrink’s office in an attempt at seduction or showing her ass in the woods. Ferguson manages to bypass most of those indignities, but Anna remains comically underdeveloped until the film’s final scenes, in which she’s saddled with the single most implausible moment in a movie full of them.
It’s that last moment that most cries out for a midnight screening. These women aren’t without talent, and they make the most of what’s given to them, but Taylor and Wilson keep trying for Gone Girl and land somewhere between Girl, Interrupted and The Stepford Wives. There’s nothing wrong with that, and if they’d embraced black comedy somewhere along the way, The Girl on the Train might even be brilliant. But what we have instead is this mess, and it’s easy to wish that Ferguson, Bennett, and Blunt would have jumped off and made a run for freedom. They, like their characters, are way too good for all this.