Director: Tate Taylor
Runtime: 112 minutes
Sometimes book adaptations get the filmmakers they deserve, and sometimes they don’t. Unfortunately, for The Girl on the Train, aka Gone Girl: Gaslighting Edition, the film adaptation has fallen into the latter camp. Roughly two years ago, David Fincher’s twisty, black-hearted Gone Girl showcased a filmmaker capable of handling (and cinematically elevating) juicy source material. Train director Tate Taylor (The Help), on the other hand, can barely keep up with Hawkins’ novel or Erin Cressida Wilson’s adaptation. Even an ensemble of reliable actors can’t give this one the consistent spark (and malicious allure) it desperately needs.
Chief among the actors trying to hold Taylor’s film together is a terrifically committed Emily Blunt, as the story’s less-than-reliable narrator. Blunt’s Rachel used to have it all, but an ugly divorce has caused her to implode. Now, she’s an unemployed alcoholic mess who’s only stability in life comes from her commute to and from Manhattan each day. Left alone with her thoughts on the train, she develops an obsession with a seemingly perfect couple (Luke Evans and Hayley Bennett) living in the house next door to her ex-husband and his new wife (Justin Theroux and Rebecca Ferguson). One night, Rachel’s evening commute, combined with a convenient blackout after a heavy bout of drinking, ends with her covered in blood, some of which may not be hers. And then Bennett’s Megan is reported missing.
Rachel is a fantastically set-up character, and Blunt dives headfirst into the unstable messiness inherent in the role. If only Taylor were more adept at capturing and maintaining control of her performance. Despite the visible effort Blunt exerts, Taylor has a habit of filming his leading lady in ways that threaten to work against the performance. In her moments of black-out drunkness, Blunt looks less like a mentally unstable alcoholic, and more like a woman experience a light bout of demonic possession. These extreme pieces of Rachel’s personality are hammered home so clumsily at the outset, that after the first 20 minutes or so, Blunt runs out of nuances to dig up.
Taylor’s odd ability to direct the film on autopilot while still making the proceedings overwrought is fascinating in all the wrong ways, and that applies to the way he handles the rest of his cast. Evans, Theroux, and Edgar Ramirez (as Megan’s therapist) are given little to do (even when playing out the fantasies in Rachel’s head), while Laura Prepon and Allison Janney are utterly wasted in throwaway roles. Of the three central women, Bennett largely gets by unscathed, seeing as her role is basically just a rehash of Rosamund Pike’s flashback scenes in Gone Girl. Also, Lisa Kudrow stops by for two (two and a half?) scenes that – a ha!….a ha?? – wind up being the key turning point of the mystery.
Poor Rebecca Ferguson (and her wig), on the other hand, is completely let down on all fronts. After being such a delight in last summer’s Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation, Ferguson is oddly cast as the blindly loyal Emma. And though Ferguson tries her best to make the most of the part, she can’t quite overcome the character’s near-total uselessness, even during the story’s most critical scenes. Ferguson and Blunt wind up as opposing extremes, the former wasting away with nothing to do, while the latter is forced to go full-throttle from the opening scene and never let up.
Below the line credits do little to help create a sustained sense of narrative intrigue. The visuals range from competent to ugly (when in doubt, avoid Dead Leaf Brown for your color scheme), while the great Danny Elfman turns in one of the most mechanical, anonymous scores of his career. There’s some minor elegance to the film’s jumbling of perspectives and timelines, but there are times when you may groan and wonder why the whole thing couldn’t have been assembled more linearly.
Yet even Taylor’s clammy grip on the story isn’t enough to dilute a few of the film’s twists and revelations. By the time Kudrow inadvertently steers the film towards its conclusion, it’s hard not to be minimally engaged as the various lies and manipulations finally wash away. But a few nifty shocks and some paper-thin commentary on abusive relationships aren’t enough to justify either the overheated opening or the punishingly mundane middle acts. When The Girl on the Train was initially published, it (and the instantly greenlit adaptation) was hyped as the next Gone Girl. But I get the sense that, if either David Fincher or Gillian Flynn see Taylor’s film, they won’t be losing any sleep.