Taut novel, "The Girl on the Train," derails on screen
Tate Taylor's "The Girl on the Train" may be technically set in the Westchester suburb of Ardsley-on-Hudson, but its cocktail of commuter trains, marital infidelity and alcoholism make its proper setting Cheever Country.
The unhappy, martini-stained lives of New York suburbanites have long been a rich vein for writers like John Cheever, Richard Yates and Paula Fox. "The Girl on the Train" is the trashier, paperback version. Its old-school title may suggest Hitchcock or maybe Fincher (who himself is remaking Hitchcock's "Strangers on a Train"). But Taylor's film, disappointingly, is nowhere near the league of either. Instead, it's closer to the kind of early '90s psychological thriller where bad things happen in slow motion and deadly instruments are drawn from kitchen drawers.
It's adapted from Paula Hawkins' popular London-set novel, the success of which was predicated on comparisons to Gillian Flynn's "Gone Girl," a trio of unreliable narrators, all women, and the way it cleverly untwisted female clichés of domestic life: the bitter divorcee (Rachel, played by Emily Blunt), the sexy 'other woman' (Megan, Haley Bennett) and the unwitting wife (Anna, Rebecca Ferguson).
They are each introduced in their own chapter, but our central figure is Blunt's boozy, devastated Rachel, the so-dubbed "girl" who by all appearances is suspiciously like a woman. She spends her days riding the Metro North into and out of New York, cursing the suburban "baby factory" while mini liquor bottles fall off her lap. From the tracks, she obsessively gazes at a house where she spies who she believes is the perfect, impossibly handsome couple (Bennett, Luke Evans). "I just know they know love," she says.
From the train she sees hints of an affair or possibly a crime, and begins involving herself like a drunk Jimmy Stewart, on the rails instead of confined to a wheelchair. But the tale adds another layer — an incredulous one — to her voyeurism. As it happens, Rachel used to live a few houses down, where her ex-husband (Justin Theroux) now lives with his current wife (Ferguson) and baby. A real coinkidink.
The mystery kicks in when Megan goes missing — another girl, gone. Her character is set up as a kind of slinky femme fatale, who (despite her million-dollar home) is working as a nanny for — you guessed it — Anna down the street. In scenes with her therapist (a woefully miscast Edgar Ramirez), she sounds like she's plotting a getaway. "I just can't be a wife anymore," she says.
Through a boozy fog, the blackout-plagued Rachel believes she knows something about the case. She, herself, is a suspect because of her frequent creeping around her old home and continuous phone calls to her ex. On the night in question, Rachel wakes up mysteriously bloody. (Allison Janney makes a fine cameo as a police detective.)
Blunt can't quite pull off the famously difficult task of believably playing drunk; her slurred words and blotchy face are overdone. But it's her steely presence that gives "The Girl on the Train" the veneer of a film better than it is. Ferguson, too, is a class above.
But Taylor ("The Help") isn't able to believably blend the overlapping perspectives and "The Girl on the Train" comes across as a flat, predictable puzzle whose characters flip from one extreme to another.
Dangerous fantasies of marital bliss are at the heart of "The Girl on the Train." There's something worthy beneath the pulpy, preposterous plot that wants to give redemption to some old female stereotypes. But Taylor's film merely shifts awkwardly from one trop to another, like an uncertain passenger changing trains.
What: "The Girl on the Train." Directed by Tate Taylor. A Universal Pictures release
With: Emily Blunt, Haley Bennett, Rebecca Ferguson, Luke Evans, Justin Theroux, Edgar Ramirez, Allison Janney
Stars (out of four):
Motion Picture Association of America rating: R — restricted; under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian for "violence, sexual content, language and nudity"
Running time: 1 hour 45 minutes
Playing at: Beacon Cinema (Pittsfield), Berkshire Mall 10 (Lanesborough) and Triplex Cinema (Great Barrington)
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