It’s normal for an adaptation of a best-selling book to have some hefty expectations to live up to but The Girl on the Train – based on Paula Hawkins’ 2014 novel of the same name – has another spectre looming over it: David Fincher’s excellent potboiler Gone Girl. Don’t feel too bad for it though, the studio was clearly hoping to capitalise on that film’s popularity. In that regard, the film will likely be a big success but creatively, it falls far short of matching the complexity, insight or gleeful nastiness of Fincher’s pulpy gem.
As directed by Tate Taylor, who made his name adapting another literary phenomenon in The Help, The Girl on the Train is the kind of glossy domestic thriller that wouldn’t be out of place in the ‘90s. The titular character is Rachel (Emily Blunt), who stumbles through life in a drunken haze, sipping vodka from a water bottle as she rides the train back and forth from the city, going to a job she lost months ago. She peers out of the train window and into the lives of the inhabitants of a leafy suburban neighbourhood in upstate New York, in particular young housewife Megan (Haley Bennett).
Megan puts on the façade of a happily married woman but she can’t stop sleeping around, with her affairs providing a release from suburban boredom and marital pressures. Her husband Scott (Luke Evans) is desperate for a baby but past trauma has soured Megan on the idea. From the outside, all Rachel sees is domestic bliss, a sad reminder of her own recently collapsed marriage to Tom (Justin Theroux) who – guess what – lives two doors down from Megan with his new wife Anna (Rebecca Ferguson) and their baby son.
Due to her drinking and persistent blackouts, Rachel proves to be a particularly unreliable narrator with large chunks of her memory completely missing. When she isn’t totally sozzled, she is wrought with guilt over what she might have done the night before, which usually includes hanging around her old neighbourhood and harassing Tom and Anna. When Megan goes missing one night, Rachel’s inability to recall where she was or what she did makes her a suspect and in order to get to the bottom of what has happened, she finds herself in the middle of a tangled web of infidelity, abuse and murder.
It’s all patently ridiculous and none of it plausible but that could have been overcome by leaning into the silliness of it and embracing the sleazy nature of the story. Taylor doesn’t do that; instead he keeps things classy and strives for prestige, lending a sheen but very little electricity to a story that should be an intriguing mystery. There’s a lack of ambiguity to events that leaves the whole film feeling like there’s only one place it can go and it takes its time in getting there. The plot requires a sure hand to keep it from tipping into cheesy made-for-TV trash, and while Taylor does a solid job, he lets the film tip into unintentional camp on more than one occasion, particularly during the film’s batty climax.
Elevating all of this material is a trio of fantastic performances from the film’s three leading ladies, all of whom are tasked with playing women torn apart by the pressures that comes with the suburban ideal that they are striving for. Bennett and Ferguson – both on the cusp of major stardom after standout roles in The Magnificent Seven and Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation respectively – deliver layered performances as two women concealing all kinds of inner turmoil beneath pristine, trophy wife exteriors.
Carrying the whole film however is Emily Blunt, who gives a brilliant performance that probably deserves a better movie around it. With a puffy face, bleary eyes and subtly slurred speech, Blunt convinces as a woman drowning her self-loathing and intense jealousy in alcohol. Blunt plays Rachel as always on the edge of a breakdown, portraying all of the hurt and confusion and fear that comes from not truly knowing what you’ve done the night before or even what you’re capable of.
Ultimately, The Girl on the Train is a let-down but not a total wash: the performances make the whole endeavour worthwhile, particularly from Emily Blunt who, in a better film, would be bothering awards bodies come the end of the year. It’s the sluggish pacing and shaky structure that hamper the material, which Taylor and screenwriter Erin Cressida Wilson seem to have come at from the wrong direction. Fincher showed with Gone Girl what the right director can do with this kind of story; unfortunately Taylor has shown what can happen when you wind up with the wrong director.