Paula Hawkins' best-selling thriller novel The Girl On the Train has frequently and lazily been compared to Gone Girl. It's true, only in the sense that both deal with murder, broken marriages, and dangerous misconceptions. But that's it, and those qualifiers apply to practically every such novel occupying space on the book rack at the local supermarket. Still, it's a decent enough page turner with one deeply complex central character. Unfortunately, little of that translates in the soggy, surface-level screen adaptation by The Help director Tate Taylor.
While expecting a film to have the same depth and nuance as a novel is unfair, in the case of The Girl On the Train it becomes a major hurdle, especially once characters start making wildly illogical maneuvers that go unexplained by Erin Cressida Wilson's screenplay. But right away we get a handle on drunken, depressed divorcee Rachel (Emily Blunt), whose life consists of obsessing about the two idyllic families she sees while gazing at their homes during her daily commute. Mini liquor bottles stashed away like the local wino, Rachel conjures up elaborate fantasies about the seemingly-spirited Megan (Haley Bennett) and her masculine husband Scott (Luke Evans). Two doors down live new mom Anna (Rebecca Ferguson) and her husband, Tom (Justin Theroux), who resemble a traditionally perfect power couple. It's easy to see why Rachel longs for what these women have, but especially when it comes to Anna since Tom is actually her ex-husband. Tom and Anna, along with their infant daughter, now live in the house Rachel once shared with him. Through a tipsy haze she screams about how she picked out everything in that house, and had sex with Tom on the same table where they now feed the kid. Rachel is not well.
However we never see just how deep her liquor-influenced psychosis goes, and just how much it fuels her self-loathing and resentment. That makes her little more than a common stalker when she begins inserting herself into an investigation of Megan's sudden disappearance. It's the missing persons case, and Rachel's possible involvement, that drives much of the present day narrative while Taylor and Wilson skip around in time to flesh out the details. But it's in the flashbacks where the film completely denies us any connection to these women. Their tawdry Lifetime movie motivations don't amount to much except to make each female appear as hideous as possible. While I'm a fan of movies with irredeemably awful characters (one of my personal faves is Closer), there must be something human to make their behavior resonate. Nothing like that exists in The Girl On the Train. The only depictions worse than the women are the cartoonishly idiotic, smitten, or evil men in their lives. They would be funny if the screenplay or Taylor's rigid direction allowed room for camp but there's little of it.
Fortunately, the film's operatic twist and bloody finale give us just enough of the trashy thrills we should have had all along. It's worth noting that the cast seem to be having more fun at this time, too; a welcome respite from all that dour seriousness. Blunt is excellent throughout, adding what dimension she can to Rachel mostly through the pain and weariness splashed across her splotchy face. Bennett, looking more like a young Cate Blanchett with every role, does what she can with a character who is reduced into little more than a sex object, while Ferguson settles into a familiar shrewish wife role.
Maybe what The Girl On the Train needed was a steadier hand guiding it; someone more familiar with dark material. Obviously you think of the tight control David Fincher had over Gone Girl and can't help but wonder what he could have done to keep this train from derailing so badly.
Rating: 2.5 out of 5