It takes all of two minutes of listening to Emily Blunt’s voice-over in The Girl on the Train before you have to wonder whether this narrator might be unreliable. As her Rachel rides Metro-North in and out of Manhattan, detailing her growing obsession with the ostensibly perfect couple she steals glimpses of outside their two-story home each morning and night, the red flags pop up almost instantly. What is this woman projecting onto these two that she lacks in her own life, you might wonder, and what state of mind has inspired this fixation?
The answers to those questions are coyly withheld in director Tate Taylor’s adaptation of the ubiquitous novel by Paula Hawkins, the rights to which were purchased before a single airport bookstore had the chance to proudly display a hardcover copy. Taylor, who previously directed the considerably less scandalous Get On Up and The Help, has, along with screenwriter Erin Cressida Wilson, brought the page-turner to screen with all the unexciting competence of a commuter-rail dispatcher.
Far more than the husband (Luke Evans), it’s the wife (Haley Bennett) who’s caught Rachel’s eye. Her life, or at least what our wayward heroine sees of it, represents the bliss that was once within reach. The beautiful young woman isn’t a perfect stranger to Rachel, of course — she actually lives two doors down from, and works as a nanny for, our forlorn train rider’s ex-husband (Justin Theroux) and his new wife (Rebecca Ferguson), whose affair began sometime after Rachel learned she couldn’t conceive a child. And then the first twist: The object of Rachel’s projection goes missing the same night that Rachel herself blacks out, which will have you asking the same troubling questions Rachel does after waking up covered in blood.
Blunt has made a habit (if not a career) of shining in roles that rarely seem written as showcases — recall Edge of Tomorrow, that Tom Cruise vehicle Blunt jumped behind the wheel of and made her own. Here, in The Girl on the Train’s early scenes, she forgets an important rule of portraying drunkenness: She comes across as a sober person pretending to be sloshed rather than as a drunk trying to act sober.
Once Rachel heads to an AA meeting and attempts to regain a modicum of control over her life, Blunt’s great skill shines through once more. It’s as though her considerable talent is at its most pronounced when it’s at odds with her characters’ stunted emotions — she’s able to express so much in gestures and glances that it almost feels like wasted movement when she’s called upon to go into drunken freakout mode.
Rachel is mired in postdivorce, pre-rebound suburban malaise even at her most composed, numbed by travel-size vodka as she gazes out the window of her train car; her certainty that the grass is greener on the other side of the tracks has made her a mess, the late-night call you dread as you set your phone on the nightstand and hope for eight hours of uninterrupted sleep. (“That’s really fucking weird,” her roommate says on our collective behalf when she learns the full extent of Rachel’s activities.)
Since she has poor decision-making skills and too much time on her hands, Rachel then takes it upon herself to act as detective in a case in which she’s the primary person of interest. The Girl on the Train is at its best when approximating that process. It’s as if the movie itself wakes up hungover 20 minutes in and spends the next hour and change reconstructing the events of the night in question piece by fragmentary piece, accounting for missing time and establishing connective tissue between seemingly unrelated moments and memories. That’s an all-too-common means of slowly teasing out key story information in mysteries, but at least form matches content here.
This doesn’t prevent The Girl on the Train from running head-on into an equally common problem among movies whose first 90 minutes are so clearly in service of a Shocking Reveal: All the setup can feel moot rather than tension-building. I'll say nothing about the twist lest I release the krakenlike wrath of spoiler-averse readers, but ultimately the specific revelation is of less importance than the fact that, in Tate's film, the destination proves as familiar as the journey.
Everyone from Agatha Christie to Mariska Hargitay has made it clear that these stories need to work both forward and backward to hold up to the scrutiny of an attentive audience. The Girl on the Train, though an enjoyable enough ride, goes idle once it slows down long enough for you to take in the full view of things.