When Gone Girl was released, I noted only half-jokingly that I wished every movie could be directed by David Fincher. The Girl on the Train, the seeming successor to Gone Girl, is a reflection of the sad reality in which he cannot. Both movies are based on pulpy page-turners, but only Gone Girl understands how to both wring out suspense and also dig into the characters’ heads. I have not read Paula Hawkins’ book, but I understand that it is well-regarded, particularly for its skill in playing around with an unreliable narrator. But an unreliable narrator on film is a shakier game, one that requires a steady hand, and director Tate Taylor, who helmed 2011’s The Help, is not up to the task.
Rachel (Emily Blunt) is a woman whose husband Tom (Justin Theroux) has left her for a placid, icy girlfriend (Rebecca Ferguson). Rachel has a catastrophic drinking problem—one that was much discussed about when the book came out—that the movie doesn’t take quite as seriously here. She drinks vodka out of a water bottle all day and rides the Metro-North train to New York City and back, past her old house, when spots Megan, the woman who lives next door (Haley Bennett), and becomes obsessed with her supposedly perfect life. One night, Rachel drunkenly stumbles off the train and blacks out. When she wakes up, she’s covered in blood, has no idea what happened, and she finds out Megan has disappeared. The rest of the movie is a piecing together of what happened that night.
A pretty good example of the problem with The Girl on the Train is in how that particular night unfolds. Rachel exits the train and heads toward the house and then…what? This should be the dramatic centerpiece of the film, the pivot point in which the whole narrative shifts and focuses. But Taylor, in what will become a recurring issue with the film, can’t quite nail the sequence. It’s hazy in a way that’s more confusing than intriguing, and Taylor lacks the mastery of tone and form that Fincher has to pack the frame with little details that we can keep harking back to as the narrative progresses. It’s just a mess, sloppily edited and constructed, and it essentially sinks the second half of the film. We end up trying to piece together what’s happening, while Taylor tosses red herrings in every direction (including a dull sideplot with Megan’s husband Scott, who is suspected of the crime) rather than digging into his characters’ heads. Fincher took a potboiler and elevated into high art; Taylor takes one and squishes it into a Lifetime movie.
The Girl on the Train plods along, playing like a lifeless wax museum version of a real thriller. Taylor makes the mistake of treating a fast-moving story like Scripture; here we have another book adaptation that is more concerned with the audience for the book than the audience for the movie. The book is told in the first-person by each of the three women, but for that to work on film, you need to know these women, even when you know they’re wrong or confused. But Taylor emphasizes the story’s twists and turns instead, which ends up just making the film feel manipulative. These women never quite come to life as characters; Taylor is too busy awkwardly lumbering from plot point to plot point to give them much time to breathe. The result is the worst of both worlds: Characters kept at a distance, hurdled around a story we don’t buy.
It’s a shame, because Emily Blunt came here to play. Her portrayal of the drunken, lost Rachel is haunting, disturbing, and probably a little bit too much for a thriller this slight to handle. Rachel is unstable and dangerous—she needs help, immediately—and Blunt gives her a pathetic recklessness that’s daring and committed. But the movie keeps jostling her to and fro around a plot it doesn’t have a firm grasp of. It’s also worth noting that Taylor isn’t even much of a plot hound; the movie tries hard to conceal its mystery but you’ll see the final twist coming an hour away. The success of Gone Girl, both on the page and on film, may have provided the illusion that transforming a bestseller into a fantastic movie is a simpler process than it is. The Girl on the Train is how you do this wrong.
Grierson & Leitch write about the movies regularly for the New Republic and host a podcast on film. Follow them on Twitter or visit their site