First off, I have not read Paula Hawkins’ best-selling novel The Girl on the Train. What I know of is mostly limited to this recent Vulture article breaking down 16 key differences between Hawkins’ novel and the new film adaptation from director Tate Taylor (e.g., the book is set in Britain, the film in New York). Beyond that, I have not read any interviews/set-reports/reviews connected to the film, and simply went into the theater hoping for something akin to Gone-Girl-on-a-Train. Based on the trailer, I expected a gripping murder mystery centering around an unreliable key witness who claims to have viewed the incident through a train window but might actually turn out to be the killer. Instead, I got a glorified Lifetime movie which borders on self-parody due to its unyielding sameness in tone, performance and histrionics. The frequent cries of “That girl crazy” and “What?” and “I’m so confused” from the teenage black girl sitting in front of me in the theater were more entertaining than the actual film.
I knew I was in trouble when the film bluntly opened with an intertitle card reading “Rachel” followed by a voice over-heavy sequence introducing us to the aforementioned Rachel (Emily Blunt), a sad, lonely drunk who spends her days on a train commuting to the city from her drab apartment. From the train, she peeks in on the seemingly idyllic lives of Anna (Rebecca Ferguson) and Megan (Haley Bennett, aka not-Jennifer Lawrence). As we learn from Rachel’s voice over, Anna is actually her ex-husband’s new wife and mother of his first child, and Megan is their nanny. Also, Megan just happens to live a couple of doors down, and enjoys an active sex life with her husband (Luke Evans). Their rather forceful fuck sessions are frequently viewable from the train, albeit through barely draped windows (it’s not like they’re doing it on the patio while waving to everyone on the train). Rachel is obsessed with each one of them, Anna because that bitch stole her man and Megan because from the outside looking in she appears to have the perfect life.
As soon as Rachel as had her say, the film gives intertitle card-demarcated sequences to Anna and Megan, allowing both to share their own side of the story through montage and voice over.
To Tate Taylor’s credit, this opening to the film rather effectively sets the table and offers us a glimpse into the minds of the three major players, although it takes a couple of scenes before you can tell Anna apart from Megan and vice versa (their freakish physical resemblance eventually proves important to the plot). However, it’s also a clear sign of a movie which has been adapted from a complicated novel, one whose non-linear structure, focus on multiple characters and ability to delve into the minds of those characters will not translate well to film. That’s why this opening sequence to Girl on the Train made me nervous: I’ve seen enough bad book-to-film adaptations to pick up on the “Oh, making this into a movie might have been a bad idea” clues right away. There’s no way Taylor and company can effectively keep up this split structure between three characters and constantly lean on their internal monologues.
Sure enough, it all falls apart fairly quickly, right around the time you realize the film so desperately just wants to be about Rachel and is only begrudgingly switching back to Anna and Megan.
The basic plot is Rachel, ever on her train, glimpses Megan apparently kissing another man on her patio. This enrages her so much she goes on the bender to end all benders, and wakes up the next morning seriously hung over with bruises on her body and blood in her hair, haunted by flashes of memories which appear to imply she had a physical altercation with a pretty blonde woman in a tunnel and then with another (same?) blonde woman in a kitchen. Within 24 hours, she learns Megan has gone missing, and a visit from the cops (led by Allison Janney) reveals multiple eye witnesses claim to have seen Rachel in the vicinity of Megan’s last known location on the night in question. Did Rachel kill Megan? If so, did she mean to, or did she accidentally mistake her for Anna (there’s that freakish resemblance thing finally coming into play)? Inquiring minds need to know. The cops have no real evidence, though, leaving Rachel to figure things out on her own.
This is where Girl on the Train should have been able to easily turn into a perfectly enjoyable little psychological thriller. We have an unreliable narrator who now knows she’s unreliable. As such, she feels compelled to solve a crime to either clear her conscience or own up to her misdeeds, and that’s exactly what Rachel sets out to do, helping Megan’s husband in his search for the truth under the pretense that she was Megan’s friend. But, hold on, what if Megan’s husband is the killer? Double hold on. Do we actually know Megan’s dead? This could be like Tara Reid in Big Lebowski. Maybe she’s just on a Vegas trip.
Yes. Yes to all of that. That sounds like the recipe for a, if not altogether good movie then at least a purely fun one. Girl on the Train has all of that, yet it somehow manages to squander the inherent storytelling possibilities of its plot on far too many flashback diversions which appear often at random (e.g., here’s a flashback from 6 months ago, here’s one from last week, here’s a flashback inside a flashback), hamfisted red herrings which amount to nothing, laughable characters turns which probably only made sense on paper and extreme close-ups of these three actresses – Blunt, Ferguson, Bennet – more or less wearing the same exact facial expression for the entire film. I’ve seen Emily Blunt’s hollow-eyed “Oh shit, everything is falling apart, and I’m on the verge of tears” expression before in other movies; now I’ve seen it in one movie for two straight hours. Ditto for Bennet’s “I’m so hot on the outside, sad on the inside” temptress act.
As a novel, Girl on the Train probably makes for an undeniable page-turner which ultimately bonds its three admirably flawed women along shared themes of male oppression and society’s gender-based expectations for family, sex and career.
As a film, Girl on the Train tries to do all of that, but fails utterly in almost every regard, building to a finale which was probably captivating on the page but feels more ripped-straight-from-Lifetime here.
What a mess. Such a shame.