Who knew director Tate Taylor (The Help, Get On Up) aspired to be Adrian Lyne (Fatal Attraction, Unfaithful)? Taylor’s R-rated adaptation of Paula Hawkins’ bestselling debut novel The Girl on the Train comes awash in nudity, laden with sex scenes and psychotic violence. So it has that going for it.
But seriously, folks, The Girl on the Train is an ugly story that, on screen, plays like a mental-health exploitation picture. In the hands of Alfred Hitchcock, that can get you Psycho. In the hands of Tate Taylor, not so much. Hawkins’ story, adapted by Erin Cressida Wilson (Secretary), does have a Hitchcockian hook: a train window rather than a “rear window” serves as Rachel Watson’s vantage point on households in trouble.
The unemployed, alcoholic divorcee (Emily Blunt) still commutes to nowhere every day, making a point to spy on her ex-husband Tom (Justin Theroux); Anna (Rebecca Ferguson), the ex-mistress that became his new wife; and their neighbors Megan and Scott Hipwell (Haley Bennett and Luke Evans), who appear to be practicing hard for the Sex Olympics. All the while, Rachel sucks the plastic straw on her travel tumbler of vodka as if it were a baby bottle, which is even more disturbing given how many babies (and wishes for babies) figure into the lurid plot.
Like the novel, the film shares with us viewpoints to which Rachel isn’t privy: those of Megan and Anna. It’s the tale’s central theme that we like assumptions based on our limited perspectives on others’ lives, but when those assumptions have to be played by actors, the characters can seem like ridiculous caricatures if not played with great finesse. Hobbled by overripe dialogue and at-times ridiculous situations, Ferguson and Bennett struggle to make their characters seem like more than sexist constructs.
Predictably, it’s Blunt that almost holds the picture together, with a turn better than the movie deserves. Like almost everything in Girl on the Train, Blunt’s performance threatens to tip over into comedy, but she mightily overcomes Hawkins’ unlikely contrivances to ground Rachel in psychological realism (Alison Janney goes straight for camp by doing a wildly entertaining “Jerry Orbach as Detective Lennie Briscoe” impression).
As for Taylor, occasionally he orchestrates photography, editing, and score into effective montage, but more often than not, murkiness trumps moodiness, with unsympathetic characters put through occasionally confusing paces, but almost always granted intense close-ups as a short-cut to drama. With its round-robin of affairs and alcoholic blackouts and domestic violence, failed IVF and aborted pregnancies and babies in danger, it’s no wonder the plot necessitates a therapist (Édgar Ramírez). After these 112 minutes, you may want one too.