"The Girl On The Train" Is A Senseless, Two Bit Thriller

From its first scene, the novel-based “The Girl On The Train” assumes its audience is deeply invested in pallid drunk Rachel (Emily Blunt) and her train-based voyeurism. Blunt’s opening voiceover thrums with an air of unearned intrigue (intrigue that remains unearned for the next two hours), dressed with the beginnings of a Danny Elfman score that sounds like Elfman copying Trent Reznor copying Elfman. Fans of Paula Hawkins’ book might already be in the tank for Rachel and eager to digest the film’s low-rent thriller toppings. Fine. But for a film to assume reverence for a character it’s told us nothing about and so brazenly thieve from David Fincher’s superior “Gone Girl” is a curious starting point for a movie based on an airport novel.

Blunt’s Rachel is a sluggish alcoholic who spends her days riding the train to and from Manhattan, her life bereft of meaning but for a few homes along her route. First, there’s the Hipwell house, inhabited by Megan (Haley Bennett) and Scott (Luke Evans). Their life together is a superficially idyllic one, representative of everything Rachel once strived for and lost. She watches them not exactly like predator watching prey, but with a jaundiced eye.

Then there’s the house a few doors down. There lives Rachel’s ex-husband Tom (Justin Theroux), his beautiful wife Anna (Rebecca Ferguson), and their baby. Rachel bristles at the family’s apparent happiness, but not from a place of cruelty. No, her fury comes from the gaping sense of loss that continues to eat at her, from the alcohol pulsing through her veins that never quite numbs the pain. It only distracts from it. She stalks Tom and Anna like a reality show viewer who’s invited herself onto the set of her favorite show, outwardly harmless but undeniably threatening.

When our protagonist observes Megan – who happens to be the Watsons’ former nanny – kissing a man that isn’t her husband, Rachel can’t abide it. With the discovery that not even her new vicarious life is immune from the pain and suffering she knows so well, she confronts Megan in a drunken stupor, and then… nothing. Megan goes missing, soon to turn up dead. Rachel can’t remember much. Scott is shocked, or at lest feigns it. And the man Megan wasn’t supposed to be kissing (Edgar Ramirez) falls into the story’s periphery.

This is a reasonable recipe for a purposefully trashy whodunit – except the ingredients are junk and the cook is a scab.

Erin Cressida Wilson’s self-serious, not-at-all-fun screenplay comes off like a game of Jenga in an anti-gravity chamber. Remove Rachel and most of the film’s events would unfold the same way, albeit without the train metaphors and drunken rants. Then there’s the script’s bad case of small world syndrome. All of its main players are clumsily interconnected, with Megan only briefly established as the Watson’s nanny. Their arrangement goes conveniently unmentioned again until the film’s climax. Similarly, Rachel’s omnipresence is seemingly no good outside of her daily commute. Confined to her Metro seat, she is all seeing, but outside of it she knows nothing and can’t remember even the most meaningful happenings in her life.

Tate Taylor’s direction is riddled with the same inattention to detail. The incessant title cards intended to inform us of flashbacks (“One month ago,” “Four months ago”) suggest the film is unfolding in the present day, except we know that it’s taking place over the course of weeks, if not months. It’s as if Tate doesn’t trust us enough to know that the scenes with a deceased Megan take place in the past and doesn’t know that a correctly executed flashback doesn’t require delineation – let alone onscreen text. This happens over and over again, begetting an overwhelming sense listlessness and underscoring the filmmaker’s disregard for (or ignorance of) suspense.

Thrillers as flawed as “The Girl On The Train” can be redeemed in the swampy waters of kitsch, or at least exploitation. There’s no such redemption here. The movie is bad and dull, and then bad and dull and gratuitously violent, not even finding a trace of guilty fun in its narrative dumpster diving. Blunt is an exceptional actress who is absolutely above the material here, a compliment that can’t be divvied up between the rest of the cast. The leading men are bad and Bennett is worse, with only Allison Janney briefly rising to Blunt’s level of competence.

Taylor’s never made a film that suggested he was capable of whiffing this badly (his last, “Get On Up,” was pretty good), so it might seem fair to lay blame squarely at the feet of author Hawkins and scribe Wilson. But it’s a director who’s ultimately responsible for the vision of his or her film, and “The Girl On The Train” is utterly blind – an irredeemable fiasco whose only redeeming feature is how quickly it’ll be forgotten.

-J. Olson

Rating: ★ out of ★★★★★ (Very Bad)

Release Date: October 7, 2016
Studio: Universal Pictures
Director: Tate Taylor
Screenwriter: Erin Cressida Wilson
Starring: Emily Blunt, Rebecca Ferguson, Haley Bennett, Justin Theroux, Luke Evans, Allison Janney, Edgar Ramirez, Lisa Kudrow, Laura Prepon
MPAA Rating: R (for violence, sexual content, language and nudity)