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There’s probably not a single one of us who hasn’t seen a stranger across the way and wondered what their life is like, or even imagined a world in which they pass their time, most likely far more enriching and erotic than our own. In The Girl On The Train, it is a couple seen from a train window every day that inspires one woman, though what is real and what is not is very different.
We begin on a commuter train with narration. Rachel (Emily Blunt), a dour-looking alcoholic who keeps liquor in her water bottle, watches out a train window at a young blonde woman, whom she sees every day. She fantasizes how happy the girl and the man she lives with must be, and we learn that the couple are only a few houses down from where Rachel once lived, now where her ex-husband Tom (Justin Theroux), who cheated on her with their real estate agent, Anna Boyd (Rebecca Ferguson) still lives with his new lover. They even have a baby and what Rachel doesn’t know is that Anna herself has longings and regrets of her own.
That blonde girl is Megan Hipwell (Haley Bennett) and contrary to what Rachel believes, she is not happy, trapped in a marriage with Scott (Luke Evans), a controlling and domineering husband. And one day, from the train, it appears that Megan is having an affair. When Rachel sees this from her window, it sends her into rage, and it’s not long after that she departs the train after a binge and encounters Megan in an underpass but blacks out and wakes later in her home, covered in blood and with no memory of what happened. She later learns Megan is missing and presumed dead and the police, led by Detective Riley (Allison Janney) point the finger at her.
Directed by Tate Taylor, The Girl On The Train is a story told in a non-linear fashion, with jumps back and forth, inviting the viewer to become involved with these three women, attempting to give insight into the actions of each. We discover that Megan is actually working as Anna and Tom’s nanny, and that she is having a sexual affair with her therapist Dr. Kamal Abdic (Edgar Ramírez), at least by what Rachel assumes. With Rachel’s knowledge of this, she uses it to gain entrance into Scott’s home, and then as a fake patient of Abdic. And this sets off a series of misdirections and garbled memories that weave an ever-increasingly tangled who-dunnit mystery. Or at least tries.
It’s not like the cast isn’t game, with Blunt and Bennett doing their best, but the muddled script and unimaginative direction make this surprisingly tame. Blunt isn’t entirely convincing as a drunk, and scenes that are meant to elicit sympathy often come off as awkward. She has some better moments with depression and revelation though, but the script and Taylor’s overuse of blurry imagery and up-close photography weaken the effect. Bennett is good to look at but again, the script lets her down and we only wish there could be more. She has a few good moments, but ultimately, there’s nothing compelling about either.
That’s mostly due to a meandering, dull pace and no sense of urgency or suspense, especially at the mid-point when the plot takes a dark shift. What should have been a tense mystery is instead a contrived, over-simplified movie of the week. We are meant to think Rachel is a killer and yet that is never truly made effective. When the script demands we think that, for example, as Detective Riley questions her about her guilt, Rachel simply walks away. And again, when Rachel demands answers from a stranger who seems to be following her, he too just walks away. It’s a weak narrative device and reveals a deeper problem where the film betrays the audience in the third act where things we were told and shown are in fact opposite, all in the name of a drunk who misremembered. It’s a big mistake. And the jarring, violent end is mishandled.
The Girl On The Train feels like a throwback to cheap 90s late night cable thrillers and suffers for it. What could have been a very clever film, akin to Hitchcock or DePalma, with a strong female empowering theme, is instead a wasted effort.
Director: Tate Taylor
Writers: Erin Cressida Wilson (screenplay), Paula Hawkins (book)
Stars: Emily Blunt, Haley Bennett, Rebecca Ferguson, Justin Theroux, Luke Evans