Billed as the new Gone Girl, The Girl on the Train is a psychological thriller starring Emily Blunt as—you guessed it—a girl on a train. Blunt plays Rachel, an unemployed alcoholic who spends her days riding the train back and forth to New York so that her housemate, Cathy (Laura Prepon), won’t realise she was fired. Drunk and still pining over her ex-husband, Tom (Justin Theroux), Rachel becomes preoccupied with one of the couples who live along the train line. To Rachel, Megan (Haley Bennett) and Scott Hipwell (Luke Evans) seem to have the perfect sort of marriage that Rachel used to have with Tom, which she now fantasises about day in and day out. And yet, nothing is as it seems. When Rachel sees Megan cheat on Scott, residual feelings about Tom cheating on her begin to resurface. She spirals out of control and blacks out, waking up covered in bruises and blood with no recollection of the night before. A few days later, Megan Hipwell is reported missing.
The Girl on the Train is directed by Tate Taylor, who is known for directing The Help (2011) and new to the thriller genre. This is immediately apparent before comparing him to David Fincher: as a thriller, his film manages to be both convoluted and monotonous. Certainly Paula Hawkins’ novel, upon which the film is based, is structurally challenging to adapt. The story is told interchangeably from the perspectives of Rachel, Megan and Anna, and also jumps back and forth in time. Taylor’s approach to such a structure is uncreative—he divides his film up exactly like the book. The only way to tell which character’s perspective we are in is to read the title that comes before the scene. The film loses the point of view narration that the book’s suspense hinges on. The only character whose perspective we are privy to (via voiceover narration) is Rachel’s. Consequently, the film feels unbalanced—Megan and Anna are relegated to subordinate, two-dimensional roles (the homewrecker, the mentally unstable whore). They remain mysteries to Rachel and they remain mysteries to us.
In addition, the film’s pacing is practically sedentary, spurred on only by Danny Elfman’s dramatic soundtrack. The dialogue is uncreative—the creative dictum of ‘show don’t tell’ is inverted as we watch Rachel’s make-up run while she effectively reads out the plot. In one scene, we see Cathy tucking her into bed after she’s had too much to drink. “I thought I would only be here for a month, a year.” Rachel says. “It has been two years now.” Cathy replies, and thus the audience is prepped on the somewhat confusing sequence of events.1 When Rachel feels something, we are told it directly via voiceover. When Rachel is drunk, we see this directly via a slightly blurred and unstable camera.
The Girl on the Train also lacks emotional nuance. Blunt can cry well and acts as the depressed ex-husband-obsessed alcoholic well, but that is all she does. By the end of the film, it just feels as if we have watched Blunt cry a lot, with a selection of train shots: close-up shots of the tracks, faraway aerial shots, shots inside the carriage, shots of the station. Rachel may be the film’s protagonist, but the train is definitely the main supporting actor. It renders the other characters opaque and their motives somewhat abrupt and confusing, especially Megan’s. While the book fleshes out Megan’s past as a prostitute and a drug addict, the film glosses over this, such that Megan’s actions and motives are inadequately explained.
At the end of the day, The Girl on the Train is too long and its characters unconvincing. Gone Girl is a great film because its unreliable narrator is a captivating psychopath with an elaborate scheme. Rachel too is an unreliable narrator, but a far less exciting one. She is drunk and sad, and when she acts out she does strange things like walk into her ex-husband’s home and rock his baby for a while in the front garden. When Anna sees her doing this, Rachel just puts the baby on the grass and scuttles off into the bushes. As a protagonist, she is more awkward than compelling. The suspense hinges not on whether or not we believe her, but on the fact that she herself cannot remember what happens when she blacks out, such that instead of questioning everything she says or does, the audience is forced to sit back passively and wait until Rachel receives a flashback. There is nothing outright ‘wrong’ with The Girl on the Train, but there is just nothing about it that makes it particularly exciting or effective.