While I was traveling this summer, it seemed like every other woman passenger was reading the Paula Hawkins best-selling thriller The Girl on the Train. I was not one of them, so I don’t know how faithfully the movie adaptation sticks to the book. But I can tell from the screen version all of the ingredients that made the story such a compelling read: an unreliable narrator/protagonist with a fragile grasp of the facts; a plot that revolves around three women, tangled together in unexpected ways, and the men in their lives; and one tough cookie of a policewoman trying to piece it all together.
The movie The Girl on the Train, was directed by Tate Taylor, whose last screen version of a novel was The Help. Hawkins’ book was adapted by scriptwriter Erin Cressida Wilson, who emphasizes the femme-o-centric aspects of the story by introducing its three pivotal female characters right up front—long before we know who they are, or how they are connected. Figuring out those connections (especially when a murder may—or may not—have been committed) keeps the viewer guessing and intrigued, right up to the end.
At the story’s center is the eponymous Rachel (Emily Blunt), who rides the commuter train through the suburbs into the city every day. She’s obsessed with an attractive young couple she sees in their house as she rides by twice a day. She imagines the beautiful blonde and her sexy husband have the perfect life. “She’s what I lost,” muses Rachel from her train car. “She’s everything I want to be.”
In her own real life, Rachel is a divorcée whose husband, Tom (Justin Theroux) left her because of her drinking problem. Depressed when she was unable to bear a child, Rachel started turning to the bottle, and she still has alcohol-fueled blackout periods when she can’t remember what she’s done—like incessantly texting Tom, to the point that his new wife, Anna (Rebecca Ferguson) considers it harassment.
But one day, from the train, Rachel sees something not quite right in her fantasy couple’s perfect paradise. What she sees isn’t a crime, although soon enough, it appears that a crime may have taken place. Rachel herself begins to have disturbing visions she can’t quite recall of a chase through a tunnel in the park, after she wakes up scraped and bruised, with blood on her hands. After she’s questioned by Police Detective Riley (Allison Janney, at her acerbic, insinuating best), Rachel joins AA to try to regain her memory.
Although Rachel doesn’t actually know the couple she spies on from the train, the filmmakers quickly introduce us to footloose Megan (Haley Bennett) and short-fused Scott (Luke Evans). They have issues around his desire to have kids, and her reluctance, for which Megan visits a soft-spoken shrink, Dr. Abdic (Edgar Ramirez). Rachel also sees Dr. Abdic, to help her recover her memories, and she feels compelled to meet Scott and provide evidence as the case builds—although her inability to separate fantasy from reality only confuses things.
The filmmakers are very smart about how much information they leak to the audience, and when. It’s often up to viewers to consider the relative truth and context of what we think we see onscreen—just as Rachel struggles to understand what has and has not happened. Blunt is terrific in the complicated role of Rachel, as flawed, vulnerable, and misguided as she often is. Bennett and Ferguson are equally strong, while the filmmakers astutely manipulate our feelings about each of the men from one frame to the next.
With slowly surfacing memories, possible hallucinations, and parallel stories to sort out, screenwriter Wilson has her hands full organizing the material. She does this with varying degrees of success: her impressionistic storytelling mostly adds up, despite resorting to seemingly random title cards (“Three weeks earlier.” “Five days ago.”) that keep interrupting the action, especially in the final act. Still, she and Taylor generate plenty of suspense in this efficient thriller.
THE GIRL ON THE TRAIN
*** (out of four)
With Emily Blunt, Justin Theroux, Rebecca Ferguson, Haley Bennett, Luke Evans, and Allison Janney. Written by Erin Cressida Wilson. From the Novel by Paula Hawkins. Directed by Tate Taylor. A DreamWorks release. Rated R. 112 minutes.