Film Review: The Girl on the Train

Even before it became an international best-seller, 'The Girl on the Train,' with its echoes of 'Rear Window' and 'Gaslight,' was a natural for the screen, and now Tate Taylor’s psychologically acute film adaptation has arrived.
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Anchored by a wrenching performance from the brilliantly versatile Emily Blunt, Tate Taylor’s adaptation of Paula Hawkins’ best-selling thriller not only keeps you guessing, it makes you care. Blunt throws herself into the role of Rachel, a bleary-eyed, ruddy-cheeked, alcoholic mess, mourning her infertility and failed marriage. Though unemployed, she still rides the rails each day, guzzling booze from a water bottle, sketching her demons, and fantasizing about a beautiful young couple she sees from the train window who live in a charming white house near her former suburban home. She idealizes these strangers and their marriage, projecting onto them all her lost dreams, and so is devastated when on her way to the city one day she sees the woman embracing another man on their upstairs patio.

When that woman, Megan, goes missing, Rachel throws herself into the hunt with a mixture of motives, lying to Megan’s husband, Scott (Luke Evans), that she is a friend of his wife; not-quite-soberly sharing with a skeptical policewoman (an excellent Allison Janney) what little she knew of Megan from her voyeuristic observations; and tormenting herself for blacking out, as usual, the night of Megan’s disappearance, lost to what she is convinced is a vital clue in a dark tunnel.

Taylor (The Help, Get on Up) and screenwriter Erin Cressida Wilson (Secretary), move the story from London and its suburbs to Ardsley-on-Hudson and New York City, capturing (on actual film!) through the agile cinematography of Charlotte Bruus Christensen (Far from the Madding Crowd), the lonesome gray river and ominous woods, and some classic city locations: Grand Central Station and its historic Oyster Bar, the New York Conservancy Gardens and its fountain statue of Three Dancing Maidens. That last site mirrors the mystery’s structure, spun from the perspectives of three women, the third being Anna (Rebecca Ferguson), the new wife of Rachel’s ex, Tom (a solid Justin Theroux), as well as the mother of his child.

Unlike the novel, only Rachel directly narrates her story, but Megan speaks to us through her sessions with her hunky psychiatrist (Edgar Ramírez), informing him (and us) as she places her hand beneath her skirt, that she lies to all her men, and “I lie to you.” Megan, seductively embodied by Haley Bennett, is as troubled as Rachel, bored with her marriage and current job as nanny to Tom and Anna’s child, and clearly scarred by an event in her past. The pretty but bland Anna has less backstory and less of a voice. She’s mostly shown trying hard to feign maternal bliss, figure out who’s been calling her husband, and prevent the unstable Rachel, who once entered her home and picked up her baby, from encroaching on her property (in all senses of the word). As the story proceeds, she admits she was happier as the other woman than as Tom’s wife.

The film, like the book, deftly shifts back and forth in time, alternately dangling clues and red herrings while ramping up the tension with quick, disquieting flashbacks. There’s no shortage of unreliable narrators or suspects, starting with Rachel herself.

Whereas on the page (and even early in the movie) Rachel is so pathetic and scary you’d rather turn away, Blunt’s Rachel becomes so energetically invested in unlocking the truth, even at the risk of her own destruction, she gains an unexpected integrity. There’s also a poignancy in the film’s depiction of women controlled either implicitly or explicitly by men, and in the complicated way each woman approaches the idea or reality of motherhood.

Taylor’s The Girl on the Train opens and closes with Rachel saying, “I’m not the girl I used to be.” Discovering how this line takes on a completely different meaning at the end is one of the many satisfactions to be gained from taking this emotionally nuanced, suspenseful ride.

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