Riding the Gone Girl wave of female-driven, dark thrillers, Paula Hawkins’ The Girl on the Train became an instant number-one New York Times bestseller in early 2015. It was such a gripping yarn, in fact, that Dreamworks snapped up the movie rights almost a full year before the book even saw the light of day. A bleak and suspenseful story, powered by first-person narratives from three of the most unreliable narrators in modern fiction, The Girl on the Train clearly invited a big-screen adaptation, even as its avid readers may have wondered how all the interior monologue would translate.
There’s no doubting the fact that screenwriter Erin Cressida Wilson (Chloe) had her work cut out for her, and though the film isn’t an unqualified success, it still manages to accomplish its purpose. The Girl on the Train is a rock-solid, keep-you-guessing thriller, carried almost single-handedly by Emily Blunt’s riveting performance.
Blunt is Rachel Watson, an unemployed sloppy alcoholic who sucks on a water bottle full of vodka as she rides the commuter train through the posh suburbs into New York City every day. Those suburbs used to be her suburbs before she was divorced from her cheating husband Tom (Justin Theroux), who still lives there with his new wife and baby, leaving Rachel to glimpse them from the train window, fixated on the life she used to have.
A young couple living a few doors down from her old house also catches Rachel’s attention, and she begins to envy their seemingly blissful existence. But when the woman, Megan (Haley Bennett), is found murdered, the serpentine story kicks into gear. Everyone is a suspect, including Rachel herself who was in the neighborhood that night, blacked-out drunk with no memory of anything that happened.
Director Tate Taylor (The Help) does an admirable, though uneven, job bringing the book to life. By jumping back and forth between the women’s narratives and presenting the story in a time-hopping format, he keeps the audience off-kilter, adding to the suspense. Too often, though, Tate relies on thriller-flick clichés like jerky slo-mo and too-close close-ups of the comely cast (often weeping) to get his point across, making The Girl on the Train occasionally feel like a made-for-cable flick.
If it weren’t for Blunt and her captivating performance, the movie might actually have been considered a bland disappointment, but Tate rides her coattails all the way to the finish. Over the years Blunt has proven her worth many times over, whether it’s outshining Tom Cruise as an action star in Edge of Tomorrow, as a hilarious rom-com lead in The Five-Year Engagement, or, in what may be her best performance, as the over-her-head FBI agent in last year’s Sicario. Her work in The Girl on the Train is no less remarkable; it’s a decidedly un-Hollywood turn, as she spends the majority of the movie weathered, with raccoon eyes and mumbled drunk-speak. It’s a raw and effective performance, making you feel at times that she may actually be out of the movie’s league.
Purist fans of the book might be disappointed (as purist fans are oft wont to be), but there’s enough done right in The Girl on the Train to make the film an overall success. And though it may not as haunting and ultimately memorable as Gone Girl, it successfully manages to avoid going off the rails. And heck, what more could you want in a train movie?