Based on the novel by Paula Hawkins, "The Girl on the Train" is a whodunit in the vein of "Gone Girl." Maybe it's unfair to juxtapose the two stories, but the makers of this film are so clearly hoping to recapture the success of David Fincher and Gillian Flynn's viciously clever mystery that the comparisons are unavoidable.
Both are chilly thrillers adapted from best-selling books featuring missing blonde women, unreliable narrators, and nonlinear storytelling -- hell, "Girl on the Train" is even being released on the first weekend of October just like "Gone Girl" was two years ago. But aside from a great performance from Emily Blunt, the "Girl on the Train" comes up short, lacking the earlier film's smarts and wicked sense of humor.
Blunt plays Rachel, a woman who spends all her time fixating on one specific moment of her day: the time during her commute from the suburbs into New York City when her train stops and through her window, she can observe beautiful, young Megan (Haley Bennett) in her gorgeous home along the tracks. Through these brief glimpses, Rachel sees Megan and her husband, Scott (Luke Evans), and imagines their picture-perfect lives together.
Megan and Scott's home just so happens to be two doors down from the house Rachel once shared with now ex-husband Tom (Justin Theroux), where he now lives with his new wife Anna (a fragile Rebecca Ferguson, far from the fierce spy she portrayed in the most recent "Mission: Impossible" film) and their infant daughter. A stay-at-home mom, Anna employs Megan as a nanny.
But we learn Megan's life isn't as blissful as Rachel assumes. She's suffocating in her domestic life, venting in sessions with her psychiatrist, Dr. Kamal Abdic (played by ÉdgarRamírez, because apparently Middle Eastern and Hispanic are interchangeable in Hollywood) about her desire for some sort of escape.
At first glance Rachel appears to be doing OK for herself, but a closer look reveals exactly how damaged she really is. Constantly sipping vodka out of the water bottle she carries with her everywhere she goes, she rides the train every day to nowhere in particular, keeping up the appearance that she still has her PR job in the city and wasn't actually fired months ago.
Growing more unstable, she obsesses over the perfect life she's imagined in her head, until one day she sees what appears to be Megan kissing another man, and Rachel's world suddenly collapses. Enraged, she disembarks to get a closer look, only to awaken back in her apartment with bruises, covered in blood and news that Megan has disappeared. Now Rachel has to sift through her hazy, booze-addled memories, hoping to piece together what actually happened to Megan and keep one step ahead of the investigation by Detective Riley (an underutilized Allison Janney), who sees her as a prime suspect.
Director Tate Taylor ("The Help") and writer Erin Cressida Wilson don't do much to enliven the material for the screen, and drain the film of any suspense or tension. What should at the very least be good, trashy fun is instead so morose and depressed that there's little pleasure to be had. While the novel shifts between the three women's perspectives, the film doesn't bother to develop them enough for the characters to register as actual flesh-and-blood people so much as ciphers in the story's examination of perception versus reality.
The entire cast (including Lisa Kudrow in a small, but crucial role) has demonstrated that they're capable of much more than they're asked to do here. Emily Blunt has proven herself to be one of the most talented and versatile actors of her generation, and there's a depth to her portrayal of alcoholic, broken Rachel that the film around her ultimately can't support.
With its "Rear Window" style plot and vaguely feminist themes, there's some interesting avenues the story's premise might have explored -- about how women are encouraged to measure themselves against one another, determining their success by how well they can perform the duties of wife and mother, and the inevitable feeling of inadequacy if they don't easily slip into those predetermined roles. But the script never attempts to really dig into any of the ideas it attempts to raise.
"The Girl on the Train" eventually jumps the tracks as it chugs toward a climax that's meant to be pulse-pounding, but instead feels predictable and more than a little silly. In the end, the destination doesn't feel worth the trip.
Check back on Friday for additional film coverage, including reviews of "Under the Shadow" and "A Man Called Ove."