Rachel is a train wreck. A public drunk. A stalker. She's the kind of woman who visits her ex's house and sinisterly cuddles the baby he had with his new wife. In your classic domestic thriller, Rachel would be the antagonist threatening the happy home, but author Paula Hawkins had the smart idea to make her the protagonist of her thriller The Girl on the Train. Perhaps she perceived that, when women disparage other women as "train wrecks," sometimes it's because they're dangerously relatable.
The novel became a best seller, and now we have a movie version starring Emily Blunt — who doesn't look like a train wreck but convincingly embodies Rachel's sloppy desperation. Her performance and those of the other two lead actresses are the best reasons to see the movie, directed by Tate Taylor (The Help). As a thriller, though, Girl can't overcome the weaknesses of its source material, and sometimes it compounds them.
Rachel rides the New York commuter train each day, trying not to gaze obsessively at the track-adjacent Hudson Valley home where her ex-husband, Tom (Justin Theroux), lives with picture-perfect Wife 2.0, Anna (Rebecca Ferguson). To distract herself, Rachel fixates instead on Tom and Anna's neighbors, who appear to be living a romantic idyll.
Until Rachel spots the wife, Megan (Haley Bennett), in a compromising position with a man who's not her husband. Witnessed from the train, the scene sets off a string of events that weakens Rachel's already-tenuous self-control. After Megan goes missing, our heroine embarks on a career as perhaps the world's weepiest amateur detective.
Hawkins' novel is told in three alternating perspectives, yet somehow only two of its characters — Rachel and Megan — come through as full-fledged people. The men in particular are ciphers: They're handsome, interchangeable delivery systems for fat incomes and babies. (What exactly does Rachel love about Tom, besides the beautiful home he gave her? It's not clear.)
The film doubles down on this problem: Not only are the men dull and the relationships devoid of believable intimacy, but Megan, who's supposed to be an enigmatic free spirit, comes across as the femme fatale in a bad '90s erotic thriller. Taylor and screenwriter Erin Cressida Wilson have amped up the book's staid sexuality to fever pitch. Now Rachel watches as Megan and her husband get it on in the living room (don't they realize there's a train right out there?), and Megan's hunky therapist (Edgar Ramírez) barely even attempts to set boundaries with her.
While the film is, admittedly, about voyeurism, all of this glossy, Skinemax-style salaciousness makes it difficult to take the story seriously. Handheld camera work and extreme close-ups thrust us into Rachel's perspective, but the film doesn't capitalize on her unreliable narration in consistent ways. Sometimes the whole story feels like a lurid fantasy she might have invented, studded with flashbacks that could be memories or delusions. Yet we're clearly supposed to give full credence to the sequences told from Megan's perspective.
As a mystery, or a study of the dark side of love, The Girl on the Train is no Gone Girl. It gains what resonance it has from adopting the point of view of an outsider, someone who feels banished from the well-lit domestic spaces where she thought she belonged. By the end of the movie, one wants to tell Rachel just to stay on the damn train, because the sterile life of those self-satisfied suburbs clearly isn't worth the trouble.