Review: The Girl on the Train

On the way to the car after our screening of "The Girl on the Train," I peppered my wife, a fan of the novel, with questions. Not about differences between the book and the film, but about how the book had made her feel. What was the its tone? Its most shocking moments? Was it page turner or a slow simmer? I asked because, leaving the theater without the benefit of my own read-through, I had no idea what kind of movie "The Girl on the Train" was supposed to be. Whatever the marketing positioned it as - a "Gone Girl"-like edge-of-your-seat thriller, a twisty-turny whodunit - it isn't. "The Girl on the Train" meanders, weightless, never able to conjure the atmosphere or tension that engrossed readers.

It's not the source's fault. From what I gleaned while interrogating my poor wife, Paula Hawkins' novel is suspenseful and compelling, a missing-person mystery that unfolds through the competing perspectives of the three women tangled together at its center. Rachel, lost in a self-destructive spiral brought on by her now ex-husband's affairs. She relives her old life in pantomime, faithfully taking the train to and from the job she lost a year ago, when the drinking got too bad. She sucks down vodka until the day ends in blackout.

As the days tick by on her aimless commute, Rachel becomes fixated on a young woman, scenes from whose seemingly perfect love life voyeuristic-ally play out from windows and balconies. Broken and obsessed, Rachel invents entire lives for these strangers, naming them and telling herself stories about their perfect happiness together. In a cruel twist of fate, just a few doors down lives Anna, the woman who replaced Rachel in the home she once called hers, married to the man she never got over.

Rachel's dysfunction passes for normal until, to her horror, she spies her mystery woman making love to another man. Her fantasies shattered, wounded by the sting of her own rejection, and thoroughly intoxicated, Rachel decides to confront her but blacks out. She awakens the next morning, bloodied, to find that the woman - Megan - is missing. It's a great set up for a better film than is delivered here. The problem is all in the execution.

Like the book, the film jumps around in time and between the three woman to slowly reveal each piece of the lie-ridden puzzle connecting these characters. Independently, each scene is (more or less) competently constructed but the whole is directionless, structured with no sense of dramatic tension. What are presumably meant as big revelations seem barely shrug worthy. It's a thriller! You should not be asking yourself if you're supposed to be surprised!

Perhaps part of the problem is a lack of rising stakes. Emily Blunt's performance as the deeply disturbed and pitiable Rachel is fantastic (she's rightly been praised in even the most negative reviews), but the character almost never feels threatened. For example, detectives pop up a few times to accuse Rachel of murder and then vanish until the end of the film. The noose never feels like it's tightening; she's never really in danger of prison. Contrast that with Ben Affleck's character in "Gone Girl." Suspicion had consequences. Here it doesn't.

Without the atmosphere or tension of a solid thriller, "The Girl on the Train" is left with drama between its characters. It's hit or miss. Depictions of Rachel's interactions with her ex-husband or his new wife border on stalking and are the strongest, while a side plot involving Rachel and Megan's husband stretches belief. Most of the characters are one-note; their scenes focus on their singular traits on repeat. Anna doesn't trust Rachel. Megan is a troubled sex-fiend. 

"The Girl on the Train" does eventually find its legs near the end, but it's too little too late, managing to be surprising but not very satisfying by the time the credits start to roll. Ironically, the credits are where I got my first and only real shock - that Danny Elfman had composed the film's excellent and very un-Elfman-like score. 

I wanted to like "The Girl on the Train" more than I did. Maybe it fell victim to its own marketing. Maybe my expectations were off. In the end, "The Girl on the Train" may be a good example for those who believe in reading books before seeing their adaptations. The film is not a successful edge-of-your-seat thriller, but fans of the book may not care. Unlike me, they'll know what the twists are and when they're coming and hey, there's something to be said for anticipation. 

Score: 2.5/5

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