The Girl on the Train has all the right ingredients for a polished tawdry thriller, but it never really gets cooking. There’s a missing woman. There’s a cast of talented performers assembled to play suspects. There’s a glossy, handsomely photographed look, like its upstate New York setting is a high-end furniture catalogue with roiling undercurrents of jealousy, abuse, addiction, and intimate crime. There’s a solid, dependable director at the helm in Tate Taylor, whose previous films The Help and Get on Up also had some interest in complicated women’s roles. And there’s Emily Blunt acting her heart out in the center of the movie as a depressed, alcoholic, unreliable witness at her wits’ end, who either did or did not see something integral to the investigation. The stage is set for something interesting, but the movie is instead a total snooze. Its mysteries are haphazardly developed, its tension is erratically sustained, and its characters remain flat types.
Screenwriter Erin Cressida Wilson adapts Paula Hawkins’ bestseller with a scrambled chronology and shifting points of view. It’s a Three-card Monte plot, shuffling back and forth in time and perspective while withholding key information just because it can. By the time the pieces finally stop moving the picture comes up empty. Its central character’s confused mental state motivates the jumbled telling, which takes the idea of an unreliable narrator to its least helpful illogical conclusion. Blunt’s girl on the train is depressed. The dual shocks of learning she can’t have a baby and being left by her husband (Justin Theroux) for their realtor (Rebecca Ferguson) haven’t helped. Nor has incessant drinking improved her life, leaving her stumbling, slurring, blacking out, and missing time. It’s not uncommon for her to ask her roommate (Laura Prepon) what she did last night, a habit that carries over from her ex. She’s used to being out of control and not remembering. But she’s sure she saw the missing woman (Haley Bennett) on the night of the disappearance.
There is a dusting of interesting thematic work here. Blunt is playing a woman who is told stories about her life she has no choice but to believe given her condition. She, in turn, enjoys looking out the train window during her commutes, making up little stories about the people whose lives she glimpses for a few moments a day. That’s how she feels she knows the missing woman enough to try to give a statement to the detective on the case (Alison Janney) or approach the woman’s shocked husband (Luke Evans) or therapist (Edgar Ramirez) to slip some of her information or delusions into their narratives. Ah, but how to do that while seeming sane? It’d take a sharp mind and sober social skills to pull that off, and she can only fake it for so long. Besides, she’s not totally sure she didn’t have something to do with the vanishing. The movie takes us into flashbacks narrated by the missing woman describing her sad life, then back to Blunt wringing her hands over the state of things. This interest in the stories people tell to convince themselves of one thing or another is a good enough hook to make the lackluster execution all the more disappointing.
Taylor handles this material with some confidence. He trusts his close ups of Blunt’s tear-streaked face and woozy booze-soaked flashes of memory to carry across the haze through which the facts can be glimpsed. He’s also sure his oblique references to horrible things – a character’s tearful monologue about the death of her infant; a bludgeoning; a pattern of emotional abuse – are worth springing as surprises and then cutting away before the visuals get too rough. But ultimately there’s just not enough there there. The twists are artificially delayed through obfuscation, stretching out obvious developments for the sake of the story’s deliberately frustrating structure. (We can’t be sure of anything until late in the picture, by which point it’s hard to retroactively care.) And the whole ensemble of terrific performers (down to two scenes for the always great Lisa Kudrow) are stuck playing slight types whose actions are determined by the circuitous plotting and whose decisions and developments hinge only on the dictates of the surprises. Worst, there’s never any compelling question pulling it along. I was so frustrated by the film’s thin psychology and unforthcoming shiftiness I simply didn’t care where the missing woman went and whodunit. I was merely waiting out the runtime.