Emily Blunt’s fearless lead performance is the sole redeeming feature of this pedestrian psychological thriller from director Tate Taylor (The Help). An adaptation of the bestselling 2015 debut of British author Paula Hawkins, The Girl on the Train is a thoroughly mediocre mystery that suffers all the more from the inevitable comparisons viewers will make between it and David Fincher’s 2014 hit Gone Girl. The comparison is not entirely unfair; both are adaptations of recent, wildly popular novels from female authors featuring unreliable narrators and titles containing the word “girl”, but unfortunately that is where the commonality ends. Gone Girl is a rich, stylish, vividly subversive piece of filmmaking, while The Girl on the Train is a rather tame, toothless, aesthetically dull affair that wouldn’t look out-of-place airing on broadcast television.
Taylor and adapted screenwriter Erin Cressida Wilson (Secretary) change the setting of Hawkins’ story from a fictional Buckinghamshire village in London’s commuter belt to the affluent New York commuter town of Ardsley-on-Hudson. Blunt plays Rachel Watson, a divorced, profoundly unhappy alcoholic who rides the train to and from Manhattan every day, partly to maintain the fiction that she is still employed by the upscale PR firm that fired her a year previously and partly because she enjoys peering into the homes that border the train line. She fixates on one couple in particular, a beautiful, delicate blonde and her much larger husband who seem to spend most of their time hanging out on their back porch or having very visible sex in front of large open windows.
Rachel loses herself in elaborate fantasies about this perfect couple, viewing them as “the embodiment of true love”, until one afternoon she sees the woman embracing a different man on the porch. The intensity of Rachel’s reaction to witnessing this event makes more sense once we learn that she used to live a few doors down, in the house her ex-husband Tom (Justin Theroux) now shares with his former mistress and current wife Anna (Rebecca Ferguson) and their infant daughter Evie. Rachel’s drinking problem apparently developed during the final years of her marriage to Tom after it became clear she could not conceive a child, driving Tom to cheat and eventually leave her. Seeing the idealized relationship she’s spent the past year fantasizing about destroyed by infidelity unlocks all the seething rage Rachel felt at Tom’s betrayal and focuses it on a new target; Megan Hipwell.
One of the three narrators in Hawkins’ novel, Megan Hipwell (Haley Bennett) is the melancholy reality behind Rachel’s fantasies. Far from the blissful union Rachel imagines, her marriage to Scott (Luke Evans) is plagued by conflict over whether or not to have a child (he wants one, she doesn’t) and Scott’s possessiveness. Thanks to Haley Bennett’s carefully alluring performance Megan never quite loses her initial inscrutability, even as we follow her to her sessions with therapist Dr. Kamal Abdic (Édgar Ramírez) or to her part-time job as nanny for Tom and Anna’s daughter Evie. Megan’s therapeutic relationship with Abdic gradually turns into something more intimate, culminating in the kiss Rachel sees from the train.
It’s the thought of that kiss that propels a heavily intoxicated Rachel to disembark at Ardsley-on-Hudson one Friday evening and pursue a blonde woman who could be Megan Hipwell or Tom’s new wife Anna into a deserted pedestrian tunnel. What happens next is a blur and Rachel groggily awakens the following day covered in dirt, bruises and dried blood with a nasty head injury and no memory of what transpired. This becomes an issue after it emerges that Megan disappeared that night and when her corpse is later discovered Rachel becomes a suspect.
It’s a testament to Emily Blunt’s ferocious talent that you legitimately believe her character may be responsible for the crime. Her portrayal of Rachel’s alcoholism is so uncomfortably convincing that you can’t help but cringe away from her at certain points, avoiding her angry, anguished, bloodshot eyes and general air of self-destructive, self-loathing misery. Unfortunately nothing else in The Girl on the Train comes close to matching Blunt’s performance. For all its thematic and psychological hollowness, Hawkins’ novel was at least a gripping suspense story, and the film somehow manages to preserve the former while utterly failing to capture the latter.