The easy comparison for Tate Taylor’s mystery thriller The Girl on the Train is Gone Girl. They’re both based on massively popular, best-selling novels, books that became bona fide cultural sensations, and the marketing team has done everything in its power to evoke David Fincher’s artfully trashy noir. More accurate comparisons, however, are the generic thrillers that populate the Lifetime Movie Network. (Also, I can’t be the only one annoyed that every mystery with an adult female protagonist has to be The Girl did This, The Girl with That, This Girl, can I?)
Built on an intriguing premise—that the people we see everyday, like, say, the folks who ride the same commuter train as us, become part of the texture of our lives—and with a strong lead performance from Emily Blunt as a woman pummeled and broken by loss, addiction, and manipulation, The Girl on the Train shows promise. But it descends into tedium, lacks all tension and urgency, and delivers a shockingly rote, predictable mystery.
Blunt plays Rachel, an alcoholic divorcee obsessed with her ex-husband, Tom (Justin Theroux, Zoolander); his new wife, Anna (Rebecca Ferguson, Mission: Impossible—Rogue Nation); Megan (Haley Bennett, The Magnificent Seven), a woman who lives next to the tracks and who Rachel sees everyday; and Megan’s husband, Scott (Luke Evans, Fast & Furious 6). Every day, Rachel watches from the same seat on the same train and fantasizes about the lives of strangers from afar. When Megan goes missing, she interjects herself into the case—maybe she saw something, maybe he didn’t, she doesn’t really remember because she was blackout fucking wasted.
Always strong, Emily Blunt crafts a compelling protagonist. She’s flawed and frayed in a way women aren’t often allowed to be in big studio movies, which is refreshing, and watching her unravel is the only thing The Girl on the Train has going for it. Everything else falls into dreary, monotonous, paint-by-numbers mystery. With zero subtext, characters say laughably loaded-sounding things like, “We were the saddest people we knew,” that mean nothing and carry no weight.
The Girl on the Train doesn’t help itself by providing a woeful dearth of reasonable suspects. With only a handful of characters, one of whom disappears from the narrative halfway through, and none of whom actually appear viable murderers, the riddle isn’t difficult to suss out ahead of time.
Wanting to have some greater point about men controlling and manipulating women, The Girls on the Train settles instead for lazy melodrama and hitting all of the staid genre touchstones. (Melodrama in itself isn’t a bad thing—Gone Girl practically wallowed in it and was tons of fun—but this is more soap opera than Sirk.) There’s a harried detective (a wasted Allison Janney), conveniently placed recollections and recalled memories, and shoehorned twists designed to induce gasps but result in yawns. And it does that obvious thing where it shows people fucking, but we can’t identify one person, though the context of the scene heavily implies it’s a particular character, only for that scene to come back around later and, lo and behold, it’s someone else entirely. A familiar Danny Elfman score, which at this point sounds like someone imitating Danny Elfman imitating Trent Reznor, doesn’t do any favors either.
The Girl on the Train isn’t even trashy or twisted enough to be enjoyable pulp. Bland and toothless, full of easily discernable red herrings, the resulting picture becomes a humdrum slog of gradual left turns. You’re better off waiting for the next train. [Grade: C-]