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Emily Blunt
Emily Blunt
Universal Pictures
 112 Minutes
Rated: R
Directed by:  Tate Taylor
Starring: Emily Blunt, Haley Bennett, Rebecca Ferguson
Girl on the Train

Paula Hawkins’ best-selling novel, The Girl on the Train, has drawn favorable comparisons to Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl, both for its general storyline and its quality. So, it’s no surprise that many people, including the executives at 20th Century Fox, tried to play up those same similarities to promote the movie version of Train. Alas, however, Tate Taylor’s film version of Train has little in common with David Fincher’s Gone Girl other than the word “girl” in the title. For, while Fincher’s film is a gem of a thriller with a terrific twist, Taylor’s movie more closely resembles a long, dull train ride that threatens to put the audience to sleep before ever arriving at its final destination. 


Emily Blunt stars in Train as Rachel, the titular traveler, a woman who, following the collapse of her marriage, due in large part to her drinking problem, descends further into alcoholism as she rides the same commuter train day after day. It soon becomes clear to viewers that Rachel chose this route because it takes her past her former family home, where she can see her ex-husband Tom (Justin Theroux), who is now married to wife number two, Anna (Rebecca Ferguson), who has just had Tom’s baby. Completing the essential cast of characters (and also on view for Rachel day after day) are Anna’s next door neighbor and nanny, Megan (Haley Bennett) and her husband, Scott (Luke Evans).


Ironically, Rachel has not focused her frustrations on Tom and Anna. Instead, she has become increasingly upset that Megan, who seemingly has the perfect life Rachel once hoped for, is squandering it by engaging in a number of affairs. One evening, a highly intoxicated Rachel decides to get off the train and visit Megan to give the younger woman a piece of her mind. Before she arrives, however, Rachel blacks out and wakes up hours later back in her apartment. To make matters worse for Rachel, Megan disappears that night and is never seen alive again (her body is discovered in the woods months later, a non-surprise revealed in the film’s trailer).


For the remaining two-thirds of Train, Rachel plays amateur detective, trying to figure out what happened to Megan and, more importantly, what she herself was doing during those hours she can’t remember. Rachel’s efforts, which can be charitably described as bungling, soon attract the attention of the detective (Allison Janney) in charge of the case, and Rachel herself becomes the prime suspect. Eventually, of course, Rachel does discover what happened to Megan, and the film becomes more of a standard, albeit rather brutal, woman-in-peril movie.


As a novel, The Girl on the Train was a character study of all three of the women in the story, with the author devoting roughly equal time to each of them. The book contains lengthy internal monologues from the three characters that enable the author to establish their character and contrast them much more easily. Unfortunately, screenwriter Erin Cressida Wilson was unable to duplicate that structure and, instead, puts the focus almost solely on Rachel. As a result, Emily Blunt has a number of good voiceover speeches (and might conceivably nab an Oscar nomination), but the other two women become far more stereotyped. Further, in order to maintain suspense and not to spoil the ending, the script must gloss over a number of important plot developments involving the two of them.


Of course, a successful thriller doesn’t need to be a powerful personality study as long as it’s actually thrilling. Train, however, is rarely all that thrilling, up until the over-the-top finale, which tries to make up for the lethargy that’s crept in over the course of the film. During that dull stretch, we see a lot of Rachel moping, staring off into space, feeling sorry for herself, fretting, and engaging, as many alcoholics do, in lots of pointless, time wasting behavior. Devoting that much time to Rachel’s struggles may be a somewhat realistic portrayal of what alcoholics go through, but it doesn’t make the film pass any more quickly.


The biggest mystery in The Girl on the Train isn’t specifically who killed Megan but, rather, what Rachel has actually done over the course of the film. Both the book and the film use the device of the unreliable narrator with the added twist that it’s patently obvious here that Rachel isn’t trying to conceal or deceive. Instead, she’s trying to remember and to separate her various delusions and fantasies from the reality of what occurred. This type of material, handled well, produces suspense classics like Memento; here, it merely leads to sloppy scenes. Further, to make matters worse, the movie dumbs down its plot twists and “surprise” reveals. Most viewers will have little trouble figuring out what actually happened to Megan well before Rachel and the typically incompetent cops do.


Blunt’s performance is by far the best reason to see Girl on the Train, but the other actresses in the cast also do well in roles that are too underwritten to really allow them to shine. On the other hand, the actors fare poorly, most notably Justin Theroux in the key role of Tom, who is the lynchpin of the plot, since he was involved with all three of the women, but who remains a bland cipher for most of the movie.


One other detail about Train is worth noting. The novel was set in England, where a train ride through a neighborhood with a number of residential houses is somewhat commonplace. The film inexplicably moves the setting to the suburbs around New York City where, indeed, there are daily commuter trains, but their routes rarely bring them close to suburban housing at a slow enough speed that Rachel could actually see what was going on. For all I know, the British version of Rachel could also have had difficulty being a Peeping Thomasina, but the author of a book can disguise this incongruity far easier than a filmmaker can.


Fans of Emily Blunt might rejoice that her performance puts her in Oscar contention this year, although a stronger vehicle might well have improved her chances as it did Rosamund Pike’s in Gone Girl. For everyone else, however, notably fans of the novel, fans of either version of Gone Girl, or fans of suspense thrillers in general. The Girl on the Train is a tremendous missed opportunity. It’s too bad that Amy Schumer grabbed the title first last summer; otherwise, this movie could more accurately have been called Trainwreck.

In this scene, Emily Blunt tries to convince a skeptical Allison Janney of what she saw from the train.

Read other reviews of The Girl on the Train:


The Girl on the Train (2016) on IMDb