When Paula Hawkins’s The Girl on the Train was published at the beginning of 2015, its ascent was swift: not so much The Little Engine That Could as a shiny Shinkansen zooming toward the top of bestseller lists. Part of the novel’s success was down to timing, coming right on the heels of David Fincher’s hit movie adaptation of Gone Girl. But much of the enthusiasm meted upon the book was also due to its intriguing, troubled female characters. Rachel Watson, the alcoholic divorcée at the center of The Girl on the Train isn’t chillingly inspirational like Amy Dunne or Lisbeth Salander—she’s a pitiable mess. But by making Watson the lens through which much of the story is told, Hawkins made intriguing points about addiction, abuse, and the mistrust of women who aren’t seen as “reliable” interpreters of their own stories.
The problem with the book, though, was that it was also frequently a hokey mess, and Tate Taylor’s new adaptation of The Girl on the Train takes the worst parts of the novel (excruciating dialogue, paper-thin plotting, ludicrous twists) and amplifies them, leaving little room for the nuance that made the novel compelling. The most notable change is that the movie switches the location from the outskirts of London to a town outside New York. Otherwise, Taylor is mostly loyal to the structure of the book, veering between the perspectives of three very different female characters.
“I get on the train and then I get off the train … it’s very unclear,” says Rachel (Emily Blunt) in one scene when asked to describe her character’s movements—about as neat an encapsulation of Rachel’s vague motivations as you could get. In the beginning she simply alludes to having “lost … everything”; all she seems to do is ride the train from the suburbs to Manhattan every day and drink alcohol to excess. Her route goes past a couple of houses situated right on the busy commuter line, one of which Rachel used to live in, and another of which is one of those convenient movie homes populated by people who are resolutely inhibition-free. Rachel has thus developed a voyeuristic obsession with a young married couple, Megan (Haley Bennett) and Scott (Luke Evans), mainly because Megan sometimes cavorts in her underwear on the balcony, at least when she’s not having sex with Scott in full view of the 17.40 from Grand Central.
As Rachel, Blunt bears the large majority of the film’s weight, and if she doesn’t ever really not look like a movie star, she at least commits to portraying an ugly kind of alcoholism, stumbling around with a red, swollen face, chapped lips, and smudged makeup, and waking up at one point in a sticky, ambiguous mess of blood and shame. By contrast, Bennett’s Megan is a pitiful stereotype of a femme fatale with secret pain. “I tend to smile when I’m nervous … sometimes I laugh,” she tells her male therapist, who is naturally captivated by all the lip biting and skirt hiking going on. The third focal character is Anna (Rebecca Ferguson), now married to Rachel’s ex-husband, Tom (Justin Theroux), and fully invested in being a two-dimensional platitude of a stay-at-home mother, fatigued by hours of farmer’s market shopping and sweet potato pureeing for her adorable baby.
The crux of the plot revolves around the disappearance of Megan, whose blissful home life might not have been so idyllic after all. From there, Rachel becomes compelled to investigate what happened to her, like a particularly dysfunctional Nancy Drew. Flashbacks delve into Megan’s and Rachel’s pasts, and Allison Janney, Lisa Kudrow, and Laura Prepon pop up in roles so truncated you start to wonder what phone calls they must have made to their agents. Blunt is a gifted actor, but she can’t redeem either her wooden lines or the increasingly absurd debasement of her character in various tunnels and woods and graveyards. Taylor seems to be rooting for Hitchcock-esque imagery and symbolism, but without any of his theatricality and style.
That the final twist isn’t metaphorical but literal should offer some sense of how seriously this movie takes its audience. Like Gone Girl, many of its scenes are so overblown that they veer into comic territory, ruining any built-up tension and erasing any sympathy audiences might have left for its cohort of characters. The most interesting thing about the film is its portrayal of alcohol as a crutch for unhappy women, but even that is little more than a sketch of an idea, lightly thrown around and then abandoned. That a book with relatively complex portrayals of women became a movie with such stock characters is disappointing, if not wholly unpredictable. Hollywood might be increasingly cribbing its ideas from books; what The Girl on the Train proves is that translating what makes those books work isn’t as easy as it might seem.