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Front Page - Friday, October 14, 2016

‘Girl on the Train’ never picks up steam

The Critic's Corner movie review

David Laprad

“The Girl on the Train” has arrived with all of the fanfare Hollywood can muster. “It’s a sexy, erotic thriller” growls a deep, husky male voice in one of the trailers. Someone must have swapped the script for the trailer with the marketing text for another movie because “The Girl on the Train” isn’t sexy, erotic, or thrilling. It is, however, flat, dull, and disappointing.

It’s disappointing because the novel, written by British author Paula Hawkins, is a great read. Set in London, it centers on the disappearance of a young woman and the ensuing investigation, as seen through the eyes of three characters. Using a first-person narrative for each of these individuals and a non-linear storyline, Hawkins wrote a brilliant whodunit that kept me guessing until the end.

While the central mystery was a page-turner, Hawkins’ exquisite prose, probing characterizations, and clever use of an unreliable narrator were just as engaging. Especially captivating was Rachel, a 32-year-old alcoholic reeling from the end of her marriage to Tom, who left her for Anna. Prone to blackouts, Rachel rides a commuter train to and from London each weekday, presumably to go to work. During these trips, the train stops alongside the house where she and Tom used to live, and where they tried and failed to conceive.

Tom lives there with Anna, who has given her husband a baby. Perhaps to distract herself from the remnants of pain the alcohol can’t drown, Rachel fantasizes about a couple, Megan and Scott, she voyeuristically watches a few houses down the street. As she peers through their windows, she creates an ideal life and romance for them. “She’s everything I was,” she says as she eyes Megan.

One day, Rachel sees Megan in the arms of another man. Then comes the news that she’s missing. Certain she can help Scott, Rachel throws herself gracelessly into the heart of the mystery.

The movie is a fairly faithful adaptation of the novel. Although screenwriter Erin Cressida Wilson moved the setting to New York and utilized only two of the three first-person narratives (she exiled Anna to the third-person), most of the building blocks of the story are there, and none of Wilson’s cuts hurt the narrative. Giving credit where it’s due, Wilson did strong work on the characterization of Rachel. Every aspect of the woman Hawkins created comes to life on the screen.

This, despite the use of actress Emily Blunt as Rachel. Blunt typically plays strong women who are able to exert control over a tough situation. (See “Edge of Tomorrow” and “Sicario.”) But Rachel is not strong, nor does she have control of anything, let alone her own mind, which is dishing out only foggy snippets of what she was doing the night of Megan’s disappearance. But Blunt’s performance as Rachel is spot on, to the point of her looking bloated and cherry-faced from alcohol. There are scenes that required Blunt to surrender all of the exquisite grace she’s projected in her other roles and become pitiable and inelegant, and she delivered.

If only the rest of the movie had delivered, too. As good as Blunt is, she can’t save “The Girl on the Train” from its fatal flaws. None of the other characters were developed with the same care as Rachel, with the three primary male characters serving as little more than soulless set props. This really hurts the film in its final moments, when all is revealed. In the book, that moment dropped my jaw, but on the big screen, it fizzled.

Worse, the film chugs along with the horsepower of a train that’s run out of steam. I don’t know how director Tate Taylor (“The Help”) was able to take a novel as gripping as the one Hawkins wrote and turn it into a snooze fest, but he did. Even scenes that should be exciting come and go without registering much of a pulse.

Disappointed by the film, I’ve found consolation in the audio book, which I’m listening to now, even though I’ve already read the novel. If you enjoy mysteries and psychological thrillers, consider picking up the book, as it’s well worth reading. However, skip the movie – unless you’re suffering from insomnia and need a sleep aid. 

Rated R for violence, sexual content, language, and nudity.