The Girl on the Train is a mysterious, mid-budget thriller aimed squarely at adults — in other words, it's the kind of movie Hollywood rarely makes anymore. While it does suffer from some unintentionally comedic moments, it's otherwise a pretty straightforward adaptation of Paula Hawkins' bestselling novel with its best asset being a standout performance from Emily Blunt.
The Girl on the Train
Director: Tate Taylor
Starring: Emily Blunt, Haley Bennett, Rebecca Ferguson, Luke Evans, Justin Theroux
Blunt plays Rachel Watson, a divorced alcoholic who rides the same train from the suburbs into Manhattan every day and becomes obsessed with a couple she sees out the window. She crafts elaborate backstories for them as she passes by, imagining their relationship as an idyllic true love to avoid the pain of thinking about how her marriage fell apart. Rachel used to live two doors down from this couple, and she can't stop herself from stealing a glance into her former house and seeing her ex's new wife and baby through the windows — a portrait of the life she could have had. So she retreats into the bottle, and into her fantasies about that chiseled and perfect couple. But one day, she sees something that sends her on a particularly bad drunken binge and soon discovers that the woman in the perfect couple has gone missing — and Rachel is a suspect in her disappearance.
I won't go any further into the plot because this twisty thriller does a nice job of keeping you guessing. That's largely because Rachel is an unreliable narrator; her drinking is such a problem that she often sees flashes of her blackout moments as she's trying to piece together the events of that night, but we're never quite sure if these visions are real. The script, by Secretary screenwriter Erin Cressida Wilson, does a nice job of populating the movie with a handful of shady characters, many of whom have volatile tempers and could be responsible for the heinous crime that happens. By the time the third act rolls around, the film has shifted from a suspense thriller to a contained horror movie, and if you're still hooked into the story at that point, there's a sinking feeling in the pit of your stomach for the film's final twenty-five minutes.
In my review of The Magnificent Seven, I said Haley Bennett came off as little more than a Jennifer Lawrence knock off. The actress still very much looks like Lawrence here (someone should cast them as sisters in a movie immediately), but at least this part gives her something meaty to do and she proved that she has range and ability beyond being able to convincingly look stern on horseback. None of the characters in this story are "likable" in the traditional sense, but there's something refreshing about seeing a mainstream movie give actresses the opportunity to play something a little more complex than just an archetype. These characters are rough around the edges and all of them have flaws, and it's cool to see how Bennett as Megan and Rebecca Ferguson as Anna digging into these supporting roles.
But when all is said and done, this movie belongs to Emily Blunt. She's tremendous as Rachel, committing 100% to the messiness of playing a functioning alcoholic. She has no hesitation about wrecking herself for this role, wandering around with chunks of vomit in her hair in one scene and generally being an off-putting person for lots of the run time. Sometimes you get the sense that actors playing messy characters don't want to go the distance in order to preserve some of their image, but Blunt goes there, and the movie is better off for it. And that's just the alcoholism aspect — she's pretty disturbed by her broken marriage as well, and she's psychologically in a rough place.
Warning: I'm going to spoil what happens and ruin the mystery in the next few paragraphs in order to talk about the rest of the film and what I think it's about, so if you don't want to know what happens, DO NOT READ ON.
Once Tom (Justin Theroux) is revealed as Megan's killer, the movie's point really begins to come into focus. Tom represents a specific type of pathetic, toxic masculinity in our culture, the type of guys who treat women terribly to mask their own impotence or lack of self-worth, and after a lot of aimless thematic wandering, The Girl on the Train finally becomes a searing attack against those kinds of people. Tom's a guy who manipulated and gaslighted his wife into believing she'd done horrible things for years as a way to maintain some twisted upper hand of manipulation, and the film clearly comes down on the side of Rachel, Anna, Megan, and the other female characters in this war. I imagine it was made at least partially to reach out to audience members who feel emotionally abused in their own lives, and while it admittedly gets a little cartoonish and borderline goofy near the end, I'm guessing a lot of people are going to relate to its larger themes. The book had these same messages, but there's something more powerful about actually seeing those terrible qualities embodied (especially in Theroux) than just reading words on the page.
This is one of the few times I can remember seeing an adaptation in which I read the book within a couple of months of seeing the movie, and I think that may have hurt my ability to judge The Girl on the Train as a film. I spent the whole movie trying to imagine what it would be like if I hadn't have read the book first, trying to watch it with fresh eyes and notice any clues the filmmakers may have dropped for the audience to solve the mystery. But I couldn't ever completely lose the knowledge of what happened in the story, so my moviegoing experience was tainted. I've seen critics say this movie is boring, or that it's super predictable. I'm honestly not sure if I agree with those claims, because, as with all things, I watched it through the lens of my own personal experience. If I hadn't read the book, I may have felt that way about it (I did predict who the killer was in the book fairly early on, so the "predictable" criticism may be accurate), but all I know is that I came away from it with two main thoughts: it was a pretty clear-cut adaptation of the novel, and Emily Blunt was exceptional.