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With 'The Girl On The Train,' A Best-Selling Novel Jumps The Track

Ok Commuter: Emily Blunt stars in<em> The Girl on the Train.</em>
DreamWorks Picture
Ok Commuter: Emily Blunt stars in The Girl on the Train.

Based on the Paula Hawkins' bestselling novel, The Girl on the Train is a whodunit constructed through an ornate latticework of multiple narrators, temporal jumps, blackouts, constant misdirection, and out-and-out red herrings. There are a good four or five possible suspects, each waved at the audience like a red cape in front of a bull, with the lance awaiting on the other side. Perhaps it's only fitting that a film about infidelity would rely on so many narrative cheats, but director Tate Taylor (The Help) and his screenwriter, Erin Cressida Wilson, twist themselves out of the meaningful themes they're attempting to develop.

Transplanting the action from England to New York, Taylor and Wilson have essentially made Rear Window on rails, which is a sad testament to the pokiness of American commuter trains. En route from the suburbs to the city and back every day, Rachel (Emily Blunt) positions herself to gawk at the same upscale Westchester homes every day, imagining what might be going on inside. Nursing a water bottle filled with vodka, Rachel mingles bitter memories of her previous life with fantasies about the beautiful young woman she spots from the train, who surely appreciates all the blessings she lost.

Or not. It turns out that Megan (Haley Bennett), the object of her obsession, isn't the least bit basking in suburban bliss. She feels tethered to a domestic life she never wanted, shelving her ambitions for the sake of her controlling husband Scott (Luke Evans) and a nanny job that summons painful revelations from her past. Megan's resentment spills over to her employers, Tom (Justin Theroux) and Anna (Rebecca Ferguson), who have their own narratively convenient history, and into her therapy sessions with Kamal (Édgar Ramírez), who has trouble maintaining his professional distance. When Rachel steps off the train and intervenes in their lives, she gets knocked unconscious and becomes a prime suspect in a missing persons case.

The time between when Rachel loses consciousness and when she wakes up on her bathroom floor, bloodied and confused about what happened to her, recalls the recent HBO series The Night Of, which is also about a suspect who blacks out during a period where a crime is committed. The question for both is the same: Is our hero capable of such heinous violence? The Night Of allowed that question to linger even after revealing the answer, but The Girl on the Train isn't as interested in exploring the dark consequences of Rachel's jealousy and rage. It's too busy teasing out other scenarios for the sake of it.

Along with a touch of voyeuristic kink, The Girl on the Train smuggles a potent motif about women wriggling under the expectations men have for them and how it can chip away at their ambitions, their self-esteem, and even their grip on reality. In that, it bears an unmistakable likeness to Gone Girl, which shrewdly rebelled against the "cool girl" acquiescence that forces women to play roles that don't necessarily suit them. But it isn't as purposeful or provocative, because it never challenges our sympathy for Rachel or the extreme measures she's compelled to take.

In many respects, The Girl on the Train feels like one of the sexy thrillers that flooded the marketplace in the mid-'90s after Basic Instinct, only with the tawdry kick of eroticism and violence classed up by a feminist theme and an overqualified cast. Beneath all that gloss, Blunt's unvarnished performance channels Gena Rowlands as a woman-under-the-influence type, perched between righteousness and madness, coming to terms with painful truths about herself and the life she left behind. But like everyone else in the film, her character gets chewed up by the plot machinery, martyred to a mystery that isn't worthy of her.

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Scott Tobias is the film editor of The A.V. Club, the arts and entertainment section of The Onion, where he's worked as a staff writer for over a decade. His reviews have also appeared in Time Out New York, City Pages, The Village Voice, The Nashville Scene, and The Hollywood Reporter. Along with other members of the A.V. Club staff, he co-authored the 2002 interview anthology The Tenacity Of the Cockroach and the new book Inventory, a collection of pop-culture lists.