You can see the kind of movie that The Girl on the Train could be, that it wants to be, in brief flashes throughout its duration: Grimy, nasty, erotic, right at the intersection where titillation meets taste, a movie that courts offense while wrapped in high caliber filmmaking. We see that most clearly in the climax, when all of the crazy simmering beneath its surface boils over in a dazzling explosion of soap operatics. The problem is that the content stops just short of stepping over the edge of propriety. The sex is sexy without getting the viewer in too much of a lather. The violence is bloody but compared with cable television, that particular gauge of excess is a bit harder to register upon.
Granted, The Girl on the Train could never fit into a cable box. It’s both too sanitized for film and too naughty for TV, simple enough to follow but labyrinthine enough to give the impression of complexity. The protagonist is Rachel (Emily Blunt), a divorced alcoholic who took her husband, Tom (Justin Theroux), to Splitsville after she caught him cheating. She commutes to work via train every day, and every day she catches glimpses of her former neighbors, Megan (Haley Bennett) and Scott (Luke Evans), fooling around or being generally lovey dovey as she passes by on the tracks.
It’s pure voyeurism, and the film turns those windows into Megan’s and Scott’s lives into an excuse for Rachel to fantasize about what used to be. (One could also describe this as “self-torture.”) But then she sees Megan with another man, and everything unravels to the point where Rachel wakes up one morning with no memory of what happened to her the night before. She’s also covered in blood. Her low-point trifecta is completed when Megan goes missing. The pieces fit together obviously, which means we have to reject the obvious conclusion and hang with Rachel as she figures out what the hell happened to her and to Megan. It’s unfortunate, then, that the film’s remaining pieces also fit together obviously, that the puzzle we’re meant to solve alongside Rachel is itself so easily unpacked.
The Girl on the Train is more convoluted than a stripped-down description can do justice: Caught up in the mess of Rachel’s amateur hour detective work is Anna (Rebecca Ferguson), Tom’s new wife, who rather unhappily stays home to mind their baby daughter. Her most frequent source of adult companionship is, surprise surprise, Megan, because movies like this can’t exist in a sandbox where people are connected by incident rather than by zip codes. The trouble is that Anna and Megan are ancillary to Rachel, which makes sense to an extent: They’re supporting characters, after all, so it’s their lot in The Girl on the Train to come in second. But they feel like props instead of actual human beings, sideshows instead of troubled women. Those troubles are voiced aloud but never amount to anything meaningful, and how could they? Anna and Megan stand on the sidelines. They’re passive. They have nothing to do.
And that feels wrong. The Girl on the Train is a revenge fantasy for women scorned, which isn’t a value judgment so much as an observation: Everybody deserves revenge once in awhile, after all, including disillusioned, dissatisfied, or disassociated women. Put in those terms, The Girl on the Train sounds like a much better film than it actually is, but we never get a sense of who these people are. We’re supposed to care about them, too, which just adds to the film’s failure to honor its own genre. Blunt does good work, even as her role demands little of her other than heartache and harrowed glances. Bennett and Ferguson, unsurprisingly, are left blank because they’ve been asked to work with blanks.
There’s nothing for the viewer to hang onto, either in theme or in character, and—spoilers—the film lies. For two hours. It’s insult stacked upon injury and smothered with a second layer of insult. There’s a plot-centric reason for that, but the reason doesn’t make the experience of sitting through a hundred minutes of deception any less bothersome before an inkwell of lunacy is splashed across the screen in its final fifteen. But waiting to spring The Girl on the Train’s latent camp until the last minute doesn’t do the film, or director Tate Taylor, any favors. He unintentionally black flags himself at the last lap. Is there a reason he chooses to stay safe and play coy for the bulk of the picture’s running time? For stories like this to work, one needs suspense and maybe an ounce or two of tension. Lugubrious acting and fancy coats are not enough.
Director: Tate Taylor
Writer: Erin Cressida Wilson, Paula Hawkins
Starring: Emily Blunt, Haley Bennett, Rebecca Ferguson, Justin Theroux, Luke Evans, Allison Janney, Édgar Ramírez
Release Date: October 7, 2016
Boston-based critic Andy Crump has been writing about film online since 2009, and has been contributing to Paste Magazine since 2013. He writes additional words for Movie Mezzanine, The Playlist, and Birth. Movies. Death., and is a member of the Online Film Critics Society and the Boston Online Film Critics Association. You can follow him on Twitter and find his collected writing at his personal blog. He is composed of roughly 65% craft beer.