THE GIRL ON THE TRAIN (2016)
Directed by Tate Taylor
Universal, 112 minutes, R (violence, brief nudity, sexual content)
The Girl on the Train is a pedestrian adaptation of a very good book. In fact, were it not for strong performances from the cast, this film would have been an early Thanksgiving turkey.
Paula Hawkins’ novel was a best-seller because of its often deft handling of the mind of an alcoholic and abused woman. It’s hard, though not impossible, to make convincing films about tortured souls. Alas, director Tate Taylor isn’t up to the task. He has taken a book that relied on psychology and turned it into a cheap stalker film. The Girl on the Train centers on Rachel (Emily Blunt), a pathetic divorcee who drowned her inability to conceive and her failing marriage in bottles of cheap gin even before her husband Tom (Justin Theroux) dumped her. She’s a world-class drunk—the sort who experiences blackouts, acute memory loss, and vivid fantasies that she can’t distinguish from reality. Were it not for the kindness of an over-indulgent friend, Cathy (Laura Prepon), she’d probably be homeless as well. Unbeknown to Cathy, Rachel has also been jobless for over a year; she uses her alimony to pay rent and disappears from New York City each morning to commute to “work.” In truth, she just rides a Metro North train and sips gin through a water bottle, her route taking her through Ardsley-on-Hudson where she and Tom used to live, and where his Yuppie lifestyle continues with a new wife, Anna (Rebecca Ferguson) and their newborn daughter, Evie. Rachel spies on them from afar and sometimes from close up; she once showed up at the house and took Evie for an unauthorized walk into the yard. In her drunken stupors, Rachel also repeatedly observes another couple and imagines them as her romantic ideal—until one day she sees the woman we’ll later know as Megan (Haley Bennett) snogging with another man (Edgar Ramirez) instead of her husband, Scott (Luke Evans).
Rachel has become as dependent upon fantasy as on booze and takes the perceived betrayal personally. When Megan’s body is discovered in the woods, Rachel insinuates herself with Scott and interjects herself into the murder investigation—an unwise move as she’s also a prime suspect as a stalker, alcoholic, and liar who pretended to have known Megan. In fact, NYPD Detective Sgt. Riley (Allison Janney) is pretty sure that Rachel is the killer and maybe she is—Rachel’s memory has more holes than a fishnet factory. To comment further would require a spoiler alert, so I’ll just say that the last half of the film involves solving the murder mystery.
There are so many themes that could have been plucked from Hawkins’ novel, including planted memory, abuse syndrome, the alcoholic mind, therapist/client boundaries, and living vicariously. Alas, what this film best demonstrates is that Tate Taylor is an unimaginative and heavy-handed director. He is best known from messing up another wonderful book, The Help, which he bathed in saccharine sweetness that removed all of the bitterness that made the novel poignant. This time he has done the opposite—he gives us paste-up characters that have no personality. They are “types,” not convincing individuals, and about the only thing we can say is that most of them are thoroughly unlikable.
The changes made to Ms. Hawkins’ novel are cosmetic. The book was set in London, not New York, and the decision to Americanize the action makes zero sense. First of all, Blunt is English, Evans is Welsh, Ferguson is a Scot/Swede, and Ramirez is a Venezuelan playing an Arab. I suppose one could make the case that New York is so cosmopolitan that it doesn’t matter, but here’s what does: Taylor is apparently so ignorant of police procedure that he doesn’t know that a detective in New York City wouldn’t be involved in a suburban murder case 28 miles north of the city. (An urban detective works for London because Scotland Yard’s jurisdiction reaches to the ‘burbs, but that’s not the case in the United States.) This is emblematic of the corner-cutting Taylor takes elsewhere. The central actors are very good, but this train derailed before it left Grand Central.