Though the marketing has advertised positioned it as Gone Girl by way of Hitchcock, The Girl on the Train lacks the sharp directorial vision and craft necessary to pull off either. The Girl on the Train will likely be a disappointment for fans of the best-selling Paula Hawkins novel from which the film was adapted, a confused slog of a mystery for audiences, and a wasted opportunity for lead actress Emily Blunt.
Rachel Watson (Emily Blunt) is an unemployed, alcoholic divorcée who takes the train from upstate New York into Grand Central Station every day, hoping to preserve the illusion of her previous life: happily married, with a successful career in Manhattan. Rachel spends most of her otherwise aimless life stalking her ex-husband Tom (Justin Theroux), along with his new wife Anna (Rebecca Ferguson) and their child together. Her only escape is passing by her former neighbor Megan (Haley Bennett) on her daily commute, fantasizing about her seemingly perfect marriage and the life she could have lead. One day, Rachel sees Megan cheating on her husband, and decides to come back to her old neighborhood and confront Megan on the error of her ways. Rachel blacks out from her alcoholism, Megan goes missing, and Rachel is forced to piece together the facts and reckon with her possible culpability after she is identified as a prime suspect in Megan’s disappearance.
Perhaps the most damning of flaws for The Girl on the Train is its inability to manage its many threads. Where a filmmaker with a stronger grasp of the genre would tie this extensive network of characters in implication to the film’s central mystery, director Tate Taylor leaves a tangle of murky character motivations and red herrings. Characters seem to exist with the sole purpose of implicating themselves as potential suspects in the crime, and disappear from the plot as they are ruled out one by one. By the time the film reaches its final revelation, it’s hard for it not to feel like a bit of a shrug. It’s a deeply unsatisfying way to construct a mystery of this scale, and an equally unsatisfying representation of how humans behave and interact with the world.
The Girl on the Train is bogged down, further still, by its unsuccessful attempts to reproduce the original Hawkins novel’s structure of dividing the story into multiple perspectives. In the novel, this conceit allows deeper insight into the internal lives of the three women entangled in this disappearance: Rachel is more sympathetic, her ostensible romantic challenger Anna more flawed, and the elusive Megan more thoughtful than their outward appearances might suggest. In a film with this little regard for internality or the basic mechanics of human behavior, however, this structure only serves to disorient and keep necessary plot information away from the viewer.
The Girl on the Train looms under the twin shadows of David Fincher’s Gone Girl and the work of Alfred Hitchcock, both of which serve as obvious reference points. At times, The Girl on the Train seems like little more than an attempt at approximating both--the missing woman, dueling perspectives, and muted visual style of Gone Girl crossed with the icy blondes and themes of voyeurism and wrongful conviction present throughout Hitchcock’s filmography.
In fact, The Girl on the Train seems to be an attempt by studio executives to recreate the unexpected success of Gone Girl, starting with its release date almost two years exactly to that of Gone Girl’s release. Danny Elfman’s soundtrack for The Girl on the Train, of wispy synthesizers and moody soundscapes, too, seems more closely related to Trent Reznor & Atticus Ross’ work for the Fincher film than to any of Elfman’s earlier compositions.
Under the pedestrian direction of Tate Taylor, The Girl on the Train never quite transcends such comparisons. When The Girl on the Train isn’t explicitly pulling from Fincher or Hitchcock’s preoccupations and distinct visual styles, the film looks like any other mid-budget Hollywood film. At its worst, Taylor struggles to accomplish even competent filmmaking, including several sequences which employ a heavy-handed “woozy” effect to represent the lead character’s drunkenness. It’s unclear why someone whose most prominent credit is for The Help was chosen to direct a dark, sexy mystery thriller, but his inexperience shows, and it diminishes what should be a breakout role for its star.
Emily Blunt’s performance as Rachel--solitary, wounded but not damaged--is perhaps the most effective element of the film. Even when the film’s writing and direction fail to match her, Blunt remains an engaging screen presence. But for all of her talents, Blunt’s ability to transcend the flaws of The Girl on the Train can only take her so far. There’s only so much she can do to compensate for the flatness of Rachel’s characterization against the grinding mechanics of the plot she serves to function. Following a steady career of consistently strong performances in everything from The Devil Wears Prada to Sicario, Blunt is long overdue for a showcase in a truly great film.
The Girl on the Train, unfortunately, struggles with the basic task to come together as a competent thriller.