Rachel Watson rides a Metro-North commuter train every morning and every evening from Westchester County to Manhattan and back, staring wistfully out the window at the landscape and houses that she passes on each trip. Divorced, alcoholic, the remnants of her life in a dissolute downward spiral, Rachel focuses wistfully — and then obsessively — on two houses she passes each day and the couples who live inside, seemingly entranced with each other in picture perfect marriages. But nothing is ever what it seems to be on the surface, as Rachel finds out when one of those women goes missing and Rachel herself cannot account for the same blacked-out hours in her own crumbling memory.
That is the basic set-up for The Girl on the Train, the new movie from director Tate Taylor (The Help) based on the surprise international best seller by Paula Hawkins. The book by Hawkins was told in the voices of three different women: Rachel, new housewife Megan Hipwell and Anna Watson, the current wife of Rachel’s ex Tom, on whom Rachel has an unhealthy fixation as well. The shifting points of view were meant in the book to portray the different views and emotional textures of the same events from a trio of three distinct female characters, but in the movie Taylor and screenwriter Erin Cressida Wilson have put most of the narrative burden on the unreliable Rachel. That’s both a good and bad thing.
The good news is that Rachel is played by Emily Blunt in a terrific performance that carries most of the story and film, even if we are only seeing certain events through Rachel’s fractured consciousness. But Blunt’s restless, fragile yet unstable habitation of Rachel — right down to her drink-reddened, blotchy skin — gives the movie most of its suspense: just what is this woman capable of? We can’t help but feel a squirm of fear during one moment where she wanders into the home she used to share with Tom (Justin Theroux) and strolls outside holding his and Anna’s (Rebecca Ferguson) new baby — but Blunt makes sure we feel a twinge of sympathy as well.
The bad news is that everyone else gets a bit of a raw deal. Ferguson and Haley Bennett, who plays Megan, do their best to flesh out their characters as well as Blunt develops Rachel, but we don’t get nearly as deep into their psyches and they come off as chess pieces more than fully realized women, doing only what the story needs them to. The men in the film — Theroux, Luke Evans as Megan’s husband and Edgar Ramirez as the therapist who treats two of the women, and one of them with more than his notepad and soothing voice — fare even worse, with their characters ranging from detached to permanently angry to outright abusive.
The Girl on the Train is still entertaining, however, despite the character issues and Taylor’s workmanlike and occasionally jumbled direction. It propels itself along as a trashy, beach-read mystery, feeding the viewer just enough bits of information and sort-of-juicy revelations to keep us watching (the transposition from the London suburbs to New York seems to have had minimal impact on the storyline). But the director, with his attempts at arty stylistic flourishes, seems to want this to be far more profound than it actually is. There have already been a lot of comparisons made between this film and David Fincher’s Gone Girl, and aside from having the disappearance of a married woman as a central plot hook (and the word “girl” in the title), there are not a whole lot of similarities between the two — especially in their ultimate effect.
Gone Girl made some brutally frank statements about marriage and celebrity culture and left one profoundly uneasy about both; The Girl on the Train says very little about either and ends with a gag straight out of an ‘80s slasher movie. Neither film is great art (well, Gone Girl is closer to it, thanks to Fincher’s always elegant direction), but one knows that it’s not and uses its sleazier aspects to comment on the story we’re watching, while the other thinks that the lurid melodrama alone is enough. And to some extent, it is: driven by Blunt’s thoroughly watchable performance, The Girl on the Train is the cinematic equivalent of any number of water-stained, dog-eared paperbacks you might find nestled in the sandy bottom of someone’s canvas beach bag. But like those books, the movie is absorbed and mostly dispensed with even as you’re walking out of the theater. It’s fun, but you won’t even need Rachel’s troubled psyche for it to vanish from your memory by the time you get home.
The Girl on the Train is in theaters Friday (October 7).