Unless you were living under a rock last year, then you either read, or at the very least knew or saw someone reading the ultra-popular novel, The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins. The ubiquitous book was a go-to favorite on college campuses, airplanes, coffee shops, buses, and, yes, subway trains in 2015, and throughout much of this year as well. It debuted at #1 on the charts and staying there a whopping 13 weeks before regaining the top spot again this year for several weeks, once word came out of the inevitable movie adaptation.
Dubbed the heir apparent to Gone Girl, The Girl on the Train was the go-to literary thriller of the past few years, despite having a decidedly different vibe than that book/film. If Gone Girl was Film Noir as character study, then Train is more Hitchcockian thriller as character study. Think Rear Window, with a healthy dose of Vertigo and you’re close. The big question was, how to adapt a book that all but completely hinges on first-person narration, which is almost entirely interior monologues? Not to mention, oft-unreliable narration at that? The obvious answer is narration, but wisely, the movie doesn’t go overboard with such an approach, which can often misfire by explaining too much to the audience where it shouldn’t. Instead, it opts for dramatizing a lot of what is left unsaid in the book, while both streamlining and minimizing certain plot points for effect. For instance, in the book, the main protagonist Rachel- here played by an ace Emily Blunt (The Devil Wears Prada, Sicario)- visits the police station and psychiatrist several times over the course of several chapters, with each visit revealing more and more.
In the movie, however, Rachel only goes to the police station once, with a few other select interactions with them elsewhere. Most of these are via Detective Riley (Allison Janney: Mom) with her male partner and given much shorter shrift than in the book. The visit to the psychiatrist, Dr. Abdic (Edgar Ramirez: Deliver Us From Evil) is limited to one interaction. The same holds true of Rachel’s interactions with most of the other characters as well, including Scott (Luke Evans: Dracula Untold) and roommate Cathy (Laura Prepon: Orange is the New Black), and another, Martha (Lisa Kudrow: Friends) is fleshed out just enough to communicate an important plot point that was entirely interior in the book. Basically, what we have here is a standard missing person mystery that wouldn’t be out of place on any given TV show that deals with such things, i.e. Without a Trace or Cold Case. Only, this being a theatrical feature, there’s also foul language, more brutal violence and some fairly heavy-duty explicit sex scenes. In other words, maybe not one to see with mom, even if you or she have read the book.
Through rotating first person narratives, just like in the book, we see things from Rachel’s perspective, along with the missing woman in question, Megan (Haley Bennett: The Magnificent Seven, in a breakout, star-making performance), and Anna (Rebecca Ferguson: Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation), the new wife of Rachel’s ex-husband, Tom (Justin Theroux: The Leftovers). As one might assume from the title, Rachel is the titular girl on the train, who becomes infatuated with Megan after seeing her from afar as she rides by on her commute into the city every weekday. Imagining her to be the perfect example of a woman who has it all- unparalleled beauty, a loving husband, a great house- Rachel is shocked into revulsion when she catches Megan cozying up with another man one day on her balcony, which all but ruins the imagined fantasy she has concocted of the “perfect couple.” Things take a turn for the worse when Megan turns up missing shortly thereafter, leading Rachel to insert herself into the proceedings of the hunt for what happened to her. She seeks out several key members of Megan’s life, including her husband Scott and her psychiatrist, to find out more.
In addition to the general dubiousness of what she’s doing in the first place, Rachel is a full-blown alcoholic, making her takes on what might have happened sketchy at best. This is exactly why the police- and most everyone else- are skeptical of anything she has to say. Not helping matters is the fact that Megan’s house is on the same block as Rachel’s ex-husband Tom, with whom things decidedly did not end well. His new wife, Anna, suspects Rachel is stalking her and her husband, due to her incessant phone calls and showing up on their block on a semi-regular basis. Is Rachel merely investigating what happened to Megan as she claims, or is she up to something more shady? The more we discover through the revolving viewpoints, the clearer it becomes that there’s way more going on beneath the surface than we might have initially suspected. Having read the book myself, I can tell you that, while reasonably faithful to the source material, the movie signals the big twists in a much more pronounced way than the book, which holds its cards close to the vest until it absolutely has to reveal them.
Though I wasn’t particularly fooled by the The Girl on the Train book, it was certainly a good read. It was a well-written character study of three very different, gratifyingly complex women that were about as far from the cookie-cutter characters one typically gets in a by-the-numbers mystery of this sort. Though the film soft-pedals Rachel a bit, given that she is slovenly, overweight and borderline wacko in the book, while Blunt is none of the above, it hews pretty close to the events at hand, and definitely does right by Megan in particular. In perhaps the trickiest role, Haley Bennett really goes for it as Megan, fulfilling the promise that her previous work never quite managed to pull off. Here, Bennett goes for broke, shedding her inhibitions, along with her clothes, in (arguably) the best portrayal of a life spinning out of control since Sheryl Lee’s epic, unfairly maligned performance as Laura Palmer in the equally underrated Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me. She’s just fantastic, and the best thing in the movie, by far.
That’s not to say the rest of the cast isn’t solid as well, just that Bennett is the undeniable stand-out. Oddly, Blunt was pregnant at the time of filming, albeit early on, so it would have been perfectly feasible for her to gain a few pounds to be more akin to the Rachel of the book- hey, it worked for Kirsten Dunst in the last season of Fargo, who landed an Emmy nom in part for her commitment to looking more like a “normal” woman. I say “normal” in quotes because of the abhorrent standards of beauty in the entertainment industry, where the likes of Chloe Grace Moretz or Sissy Spacek are considered to be apropos for the likes of Stephen King’s awkward Carrie, who, like Rachel here, was supposed to be overweight, besotted with pimples and so forth. In Hollywoodland, one need only give a girl glasses and bad fashion sense for her to pass as “ugly.” Here, it’s slightly blackened eyes and slurred speech, but I’m going to go out on a limb and say that it wouldn’t deter most men- or women- from thinking Blunt is still pretty damn gorgeous. If the film had the courage of its convictions, it would have cast someone a bit more akin to the book’s version, but such are the ways of Hollywood, so I can’t say I’m exactly surprised.
That said, at least the women in The Girl on the Train remain complex, even if the film dodges certain tricky terrain that was in the book, such as Rachel’s ill-advised roll in the hay with a certain character or Anna’s often vicious reaction to Rachel, even during a key, potentially dangerous scenario for the both of them. In other words, the film isn’t afraid to make them complex, but stops short of daring to make any of them unlikable, which was not an issue in the book. Still, insofar as being pure entertainment, the movie isn’t bad, just a bit on the poky side at times. For those who haven’t read the book, it could also potentially be a bit on the confusing side as well, which is a problem for a movie that hinges on a mystery element.
At least when I figured it out in the book, I had the proper clues to put it together to get there on my own. Here, it’s all a bit out of the blue, despite the film’s best efforts to withhold things as long as possible. In fact, that withholding is precisely the problem. How can you suspect something when you don’t have all the information or even know if what you’re seeing is real or not, given the whole unreliable narrator thing? But despite this, The Girl on the Train is still worth seeing, especially for fans of the book since, for the most part, it does it justice. Yes, the action is switched from London to New York, which is sort of unnecessary, and, like I said, certain things are streamlined a bit, but that’s almost to be expected. But the film is well-cast and acted, the visual style is hypnotic, and the early love scenes are admittedly pretty steamy, especially on Bennett’s end.
Also, The Girl on the Train generally nails the crucial final scenes almost exactly how I pictured them in the book, which is a big plus. A film like this hinges so much on the pay-off that if it doesn’t deliver, the whole film suffers as a result. Here, the climax actually makes up for the sometimes ham-fisted way the rest of the film is delivered, so hang in there for that. You might not figure out who done it or why for the reasons I mentioned, but if you go in with lowered expectations and a love for any of the main cast, you should be fine. The Girl on the Train is no Gone Girl, that’s for sure, but it isn’t really trying to be, so the oft-made comparison is kind of unfair anyway. I’d say, if you read the book and liked it, see it in theaters, but if you didn’t and are on the fence, maybe wait to watch at home.
Grade: C+ for those who haven’t read it; B- for those who have.