Photo Credit: Universal Pictures
The Girl on the Train is opening on the first full weekend of October, is based on a runaway hit novel, has Emily Blunt in a leading role and is helmed by a director who's gotten award-caliber performances from his last two movies. All those elements have proven to be hit worthy in the last few years, but they don't quite add up together this time.
Rachel is a spiraling, divorced alcoholic who spends her days doing nothing but drinking, riding a train to and from New York, and losing herself in fantasies about a seemingly perfect couple she spots from her train car every day. The fact that they live two doors down from her ex-husband Tom and his mistress turned wife and baby mother Anna only makes things worse, but it is nothing compared to the blow when Rachel sees the woman in close contact with another man. Her subsequent blackout drunken night leaves her with blood and bruises everywhere, which only looks more damning when the woman, who is actually named Megan Hipwell and is actually her ex-husband's former nanny, is nowhere to be found after that night.
The Girl on the Train took off in no time in novel form, with its multiple perspectives from Rachel, Megan and Anna and its mystery that "shocked the world" as the trailers say. What's more, this is even a rare case where this reviewer read the book before seeing the movie. However, having already seen how it all plays out as a book, this reviewer can't really attest to how unpredictable the movie really is.
Nonetheless, both the novel's fans and the story's first time viewers may find it equally hard to be truly thrilled here.
Director Tate Taylor and writer Erin Cressida Wilson move at a deliberately leisurely pace, as they set up the structure from original novel writer Paula Hawkins in going back between Rachel, Megan and Anna's perspectives. But in truth, the main p.o.v.'s are really between Rachel and Megan, much like in the book, although Rachel's is clearly the dominant one. Clearly a novel has more room to present equal and more intimate perspectives back and forth between three characters than a movie with a less than two-hour running time.
Taylor tries not to spare any expense in the drunken p.o.v. of Rachel, or the real and imagined erotic exploits of Megan. Still, it is obvious early on that both are yearning and fantasizing for something the other one wants, although they've never met. Most clearly of all, the unifying thread between them and Anna is children, whether they have them, want them or don't want them and what that does to each of them, although only one of them currently has one.
There is more than enough room for thoughtful commentary on this theme, and the different perspectives of motherhood or a lack thereof. But although Taylor and Wilson scratch the surface a number of times, they can't quite focus to tie it all together or give it the more detailed analysis it deserves. Again, this is a case of a novel having more room to do it true justice than a movie does, or at least more than this movie does.
This becomes a crippling flaw of The Girl on the Train as a film, as it makes the occasional leap to be something ambitious, meaningful and relevant but can't get all the way. As Allison Janney's detective says, there are a lot of pieces that say something on their own, but they don't add up to much. If a movie can unknowingly and unironically articulate its own major flaw like that, it usually isn't a good sign.
Taylor tries to spice things up, yet this is where his inexperience in the thriller genre does him in. Despite making a name for himself in The Help and Get On Up, none of those past works suggested Taylor was the right choice for a film like this. Maybe few other directors would have been besides David Fincher, and perhaps taking a leap of faith with someone like Taylor might have looked good on paper. Yet he is done in by his over reliance on slow motion, his inability to generate any real thrills or suspense, his missed opportunities to make this more than a regular mystery thriller, and how things turn out when he tries to inject suspense and answers in the third act.
Ironically enough, when the movie tries too hard to be sensationalistic and shocking, it doesn't work as well as the moments that slow down and actually let the characters breathe. This is most obvious in the use of both Blunt as Rachel and Haley Bennett as Megan.
It is surely easy to nitpick if Blunt is the most convincing at being the kind of drunken, sloppy mess Rachel was in the novel. Things go most overboard in her biggest freak out at a bathroom, which wasn't even in the book, as Blunt's seething delivery only narrowly cancels out her drunk face makeup and Taylor's presentation. As it turns out, Blunt is much more powerful without so much in her way, such as in a speech at an AA meeting and in her therapy sessions with a suspicious shrink.
Taylor and the rest of the movie are best when they just get out of Blunt's way, let her carry things with her trembling face and voice, and let her try to create a real tragic and screwed up character without the extra bells and whistles. In Blunt's face, voice and fear, it is easier to see the more powerful and resonant movie this could have been if it rose up to her level, or at least the level she shows when she's most allowed to.
Yet they do more to handcuff Bennett, in her second supposed star-making film in a three-week span after The Magnificent Seven. While she gets an bigger role here, she is hamstrung by the movie's worst lines and some of the more campy scenes. But almost no one could have made the scene where Megan desperately suckles on her therapist's fingers more than unintentional comedy.
Despite all that, when Megan finally gets to explain the root of her problems and her darkest sin, Bennett creates what may be the most moving sequence of the whole movie. Once again, when Taylor and Wilson actually get out of their own way, and just let someone explore the most powerful elements of the source material, they find their greatest success. Unfortunately they don't do it enough, which leaves Blunt to carry the load as long as she can and leaves Bennett with too little that she can truly salvage.
They still get much more to rise above than Rebecca Ferguson as Anna, however. The book is somewhat to blame for giving her the least important and developed p.o.v., but the missed opportunities are really glaring in the movie. Anna is the character who most embodies and embraces the supposed ideal of motherhood and family, especially since she's the only one who seems to have it, yet it is the least examined perspective of the film. This is especially troubling when Anna seems far too determined to try and protect that ideal in the climax, against all reason and logic by that particular point, without the movie ever trying to delve into why she's that obsessed with it.
Even brief moments where Anna behaves somewhat like Rachel in suspecting her husband's activities are dropped before they go anywhere deeper. While Rachel declares that she, Megan and Anna are forever tied together at the end, Anna is really more of a peripheral link in the chain. In missing that chance to really flesh out her beliefs, how they contrast with Rachel and Megan's and what it all represents about the larger issues of the story, it really symbolizes the wasted chances of the film as a whole to be something more.
It is also another example of how Taylor squanders someone who has proven capable of much more. While Ferguson is stopped from showing what made her break out in Mission: Impossible -- Rogue Nation, and not because there are no fight scenes, Justin Theroux is a long way away from his caliber of work on HBO's The Leftovers in the last two years, which becomes a bigger problem as things go on. Luke Evans is even more of a blank slate as Megan's husband, which only makes his casting as Gaston in next spring's Beauty and the Beast remake that much more puzzling. As for Edgar Ramirez as the therapist, he mainly serves as a sounding board for some of Blunt and Bennett's best scenes, and a couple of Bennett's worst.
In a movie where even Blunt can only carry things so far, where Bennett is given no favors half the time, where Ferguson, Ramirez and Theroux aren't used to their full capabilities, where Evans can't prove he has any beyond brooding and where even Janney and Lisa Kudrow are cast in too tiny roles, perhaps Taylor misusing his own skillset as director is less glaring and more fitting. Regardless, it doesn't mean he should be left off the hook.
For the major fans of the original novel and of Blunt, it can't be said there isn't anything of value. But the knowledge of what this material and Blunt are fully capable of makes it more annoying that the movie doesn't fully exploit them, especially when they do get to show what things might have been like if it did.
This may be one of the few Girl on the Train reviews that waits until the very end to say the words Gone Girl. Yet if anything, the movie this more closely resembles is Suicide Squad, in that both gave every reason to expect greatness, still had one or two real knockout performances, and showed hints on how they could have transcended their genre.
Sadly, they also end up unable to live up to their full potential, thanks in part to a miscast director, an overly dark tone, subpar suspense, abandoned ambition and the shadows of better source material. However, The Girl on the Train doesn't have a meddling studio or superhero fatigue to help excuse its flaws with.