After the unmitigated success of David Fincher’s psychological drama Gone Girl at the tail end of 2014, movie studios probably couldn’t believe their luck when Paula Hawkins’ novel about a suburban wife going missing in suspicious circumstances hit the top spot on the best sellers list at the beginning of 2015. Hawkin’s The Girl on the Train was quickly seized upon as a kindred spirit to Fincher’s sleeper hit and fast-tracked into production with Tate Taylor (The Help) at the helm and Emily Blunt taking the lead as the titular ‘Girl’.
While comparisons to Gone Girl are inevitable as Taylor has unarguably attempted to mimic Fincher’s clinically detached style and the premise of a suburban housewife going missing in suspicious circumstances is identical. However, the parallels end there, both in content and in quality, unfortunately.
BLUNT FORCE TRAUMA
We meet Rachel Watson (Emily Blunt) on a train (of course) as it comes to a stop near a house she has begun to obsess over through the fleeting glimpses she gets to see on her daily commute. The focus of her interest is the couple within the home who she infers as having an idyllic and passionate relationship which brings about a duplicity of awe and envy in Rachel’s mind. It turns out that the woman in the house, Megan (Haley Bennett), is the nanny for the daughter of Rachel’s ex-husband and works with his new wife, Anna (Rebecca Ferguson), just two doors down from Megan’s abode (settle in for lots more contrivances like this).
It quickly becomes clear that Rachel isn’t exactly handling her divorce all that well: apart from an unhealthy obsession with strangers, she’s also crushing her coping skills with alcoholism which makes her an unreliable narrator in the opening stages of proceedings. Day after day, she takes the train, gets drunk and longs for those brief spells of voyeurism as the train comes to a halt past her old house. One day, however, she spies Megan kissing a different man outside her house shattering Rachel’s picture-perfect perception, sending her finally off the rails (sorry, couldn’t resist) and leads to her trying to confront Megan in a tunnel… and then everything goes black.
Rachel awakes covered in blood (which she hopes is her own) and soon learns that no one has seen Megan since she walked into the tunnel. After she performs shakily during police questioning, Rachel sets out to find out what really went down that night and clear her name after it is revealed she has a past of stalking her ex-husband, Tom (Justin Theroux), and his new wife.
During this opening act, The Girl on the Train is extremely gripping and intriguing thanks mainly to the ambiguity of our protagonist and the stand out performance Emily Blunt serves up here. Blunt is on top form here and gives the most convincing depiction of an alcoholic since Nic Cage in Leaving Las Vegas as she nails all the wobbles and slurs to create a pitiful creature who you are constantly weighing up whether you should have any sympathy for at all. It is certainly Oscar worthy stuff and is a far better performance than the rest of the film deserves.
*MILD SPOILERS AHEAD*
It’s after such a promising set up that the film actually has to deliver on it and gets lost in transit. Rachel befriends Megan’s husband under false pretenses of being Megan’s friend and starts to untangle a web of abuse and infidelity. Of course, the more she struggles with said web the tighter it wraps itself around her as her ex-husband becomes increasingly concerned to see Rachel near their home again and we’re shown in flashbacks as to why he has good reason to be given Rachel’s shocking, booze-fuelled behavior and outbursts when they were together.
At this point, the film is still very much on rails but then it tries to shift up a gear and things start to get a bit wobbly before coming off the tracks altogether. Characters start changing modus operandi and on occasion their entire personalities to try and add an extra turn to every twist. One particular scene, where Allison Janney’s previously reasonable and sympathetic cop launches into an outrageous and virtually baseless accusation against Rachel is a strong indicator of how the plot is starting to teeter on the tracks. And then, after a chance encounter with an old acquaintance, Rachel suddenly pieces together her entire memory (just like that) and then basically solves the entire case which finally sends everything flying off the rails. It’s a cheap use of popcorn logic that jars horribly with the sophisticated tone the film had previously held so well and it kisses its Gone Girl comparisons goodbye at this stage.
Whereas Fincher’s adaptation was a nuanced, balanced and incisive battle of the sexes, The Girl on the Train seems content with showing women as helpless victims towards the end as Rachel is cleared of her alleged sins and becomes a far less effective character as a result. The denouement retains some tension thanks to the best efforts of the cast and Taylor’s unquestionable talent at handling performers (plenty of questions about his handling of plots and pacing, though). But the damage has already been done after the rushed third act that, appropriately enough, feels like a drunk recounting of the book’s final chapters.
Ultimately, it’s all very disappointing and such a waste of so many quality components. Blunt will hopefully walk away unscathed from the wreckage to at least get a deserved nomination come February but for anyone wanting a thriller that knows how to reach its destination, you may want to wait for a later train.