Movie Review: 'The Girl on the Train' (2016)

A simmering thriller that almost flies off the rails, “The Girl on the Train” is rescued by a strong final act. It is a trip that takes viewers through the perilously dark and twisted tunnels of three women’s interwoven lives. First, there is Rachel (Emily Blunt), a divorcee struggling with alcoholism.

Unable to work, she sustains herself on the alimony payments of her ex-husband, Tom (Justin Theroux). Hence she spends her days commuting to and from New York City. During that ride, she catches a daily glimpse of her old neighborhood. From her window seat, she has taken a special interest in one of the young couples living there.

One-half of that married couple is Megan (Haley Bennett). She is the nanny to Anna (Rebecca Ferguson) and Tom’s daughter. Anna is the new wife of Rachel’s ex-husband. Are you confused yet? Okay, so Tom left Rachel for Anna after carrying on a year-long affair, something that has left Rachel shattered and unable to move on with her life. 

Just when you thought this toxic mix could not get any more volatile, Megan goes missing. And Rachel has jagged, selective memories of a confrontation with her. Cue the suspicions of an erudite detective (Allison Janney).

Once everyone’s connection is established, "The Girl on the Train" allows us to draw our share of conclusions. Is Rachel an unhinged, scorned woman playing out a vendetta? Is Anna trying to get rid of her husband’s ex, once and for all?

And how on earth does Megan connect to any of this, aside from Rachel’s voyeurism and her role as a former nanny to Anna and Tom’s baby? It will take the entire movie to sort out all the pieces.

It is during its extended peek into the back pages of these women’s sordid lives where “The Girl on the Train” veers into tedious melodrama. It especially overindulges in trying to get one to sympathize with Megan. A character that does so much damage to those around her, it makes it next to impossible to feel anything for her by the time of the big reveal.

[Image by Universal Pictures]
For her part, Rachel is the only sympathetic member of the trio. Something the movie tries to convince us is not warranted because most everyone around her shows her nothing except utter contempt. As for Megan and Anna, it is a battle between unlikable antagonists.

The narrative does not get any better for the men, as it overtly attempts to steer the audience's feelings towards them as well. Tom is a cheater but a compassionate one, handling his ex-wife with an unexpected tenderness.

While Megan’s hyper-vigilant husband Scott (a vastly underused Luke Evans) is pronounced guilty of being a bad guy because he is frustrated over his wife’s possible infidelity. You do have to take into account this is coming from Megan’s lust-filled therapist (Edgar Ramirez), who has his own designs on the troubled woman.

Make no mistake, few of these characters come off as good people and that is a large part of so many of the film’s problems. Why should we care? It is a question that came up with 2014’s “Gone Girl”, also an adaptation of a highly successful, suspense novel. Thankfully, “The Girl on the Train” boasts more interesting performances, which lends it a considerable edge over Fincher’s overrated thriller.

Emily Blunt is brilliant as the distressed Rachel; her wounded eyes belying a lost soul who has tragically spiraled into the bottle for comfort. While she plays sad and persistently intoxicated throughout most of the film, Blunt has one of her most sobering moments early on.

As Rachel rages over Anna and her lost life. Her fury fills the atmosphere with enough tangibility, to make one feel it has taken on a physical form. Blunt has in many ways, never been better, which is saying a lot because she tends to be consistently marvelous.

[Image by Universal Pictures]

As her rival, Rebecca Ferguson is dazzling as the interloping Anna. An otherwise detestable character that in the hands of Ferguson becomes human. Ferguson imbues her with a dimension that makes Anna more difficult to write off as a simple villain. The Swedish actress’ remarkable ability to change an expression on a dime comes in handy here, dancing on the edge of a knife as one-half of the film’s alpha females.

Ferguson is no stranger to playing fem rivalries and like the miniseries that earned her, her big break (“The White Queen”), “The Girl on the Train” revolves around the tenuous ties of three women. That dynamic is played out with varying success here.

See, “The Girl on the Train” packs a lot of cargo in its haul. It addresses infertility, voyeurism, infidelity, and alcoholism to varying depths, without much of a definitive commentary. Its hands-off approach aids in it feeling wide-ranging and free of judgment, though it also robs it of a great deal of personality.

While Charlotte Bruus Christensen’s cinematography brings a frosty bite of sensuality to the picture, director Tate Taylor under-utilizes its most intriguing attribute – its innate eroticism. “The Girl on the Train” does not fully embrace its embedded erotic undertones, its sensually charged imagery inexplicably dropping in and out of focus, without much forewarning.

The steam fades further away as Taylor overuses a dizzying blur effect to evoke its characters’ frazzled mental state. If only these two characteristics had switched places in terms of emphasis, “The Girl on the Train” might have been a smoother ride.

“The Girl on the Train” is a good movie that never quite reaches its potential greatness. Instead of taking cues from “Gone Girl”, it would have benefited more from the influence of Mikael Hafstrom’s criminally underrated 2005 thriller “Derailed”.

Where that film succeeded in breathless thrills, “Girl on the Train” leaves viewers with more chills. While this train is no speeding bullet, it does avoid a disastrous dash off the tracks. Rating: 6.7/10

[Featured Image by Universal Pictures]