Rachel Watson is a mess. Two years after her husband left her (for the real estate agent!), she's unemployed, deeply depressed, and drinking vodka out of thirty-two-ounce water bottles. Every day, she rides the commuter train into Manhattan, pretending to have a job. She looks wistfully out the window at the passing houses of Westchester and the life she used to have.
To be clear, Rachel, as played by Emily Blunt in the new thriller The Girl on the Train, is literally looking at the life she used to have. As it happens, the train route goes right past her old house, where she regularly spies on her ex-husband, Tom (Justin Theroux), and his new wife, Anna (Rebecca Ferguson). Rachel also keeps an eye on another house, a few doors down, where young newlyweds Megan (Haley Bennett) and Scott (Luke Evans) live a seemingly idyllic life.
One fateful evening, an extremely drunk Rachel decides to disembark at her old stop. What happens next will be the nexus around which the rest of the movie revolves. The lives of all the principal players intersect, and by the next morning, young newlywed Megan has gone missing.
What happened? Rachel doesn't know. She was in an alcoholic blackout and her memories of the evening only surface in shards and splinters. Other characters become involved at the edges—a roommate (Laura Prepon), a psychologist (Edgar Ramírez), an old acquaintance (Lisa Kudrow), a cop (Allison Janney). The story moves in a tightening spiral, each character getting closer to the central revelation of What Happened That Night.
Based on last summer's iteration of that perennial pop-culture phenomenon, the must-read beach novel, The Girl on the Train is fundamentally trashy. The late critic Pauline Kael has a famous quote that concerns films like this: “Movies are so rarely great art that if we cannot appreciate great trash we have very little reason to be interested in them.” Alas, The Girl on the Train is not even great trash. It's OK trash, a story of lurid sex and bloodshed in the upper-class suburbs of New York—a voyeuristic, hard-R spin on a Lifetime Movie of the Week.
The best thing in the movie by far is Blunt's intensely vulnerable lead performance. She's onscreen virtually the entire time, often in extreme close-ups that reveal the ravages of Rachel's despair and severe alcoholism. Blunt is fearless, and she provides a core of emotional authenticity that serves as the film's center of gravity.
Director Tate Taylor (The Help), working from a script by Erin Cressida Wilson, employs a nonlinear narrative style, toggling between past and present. Puzzle pieces fall into place as the spiral accelerates and the film's central mystery is resolved. Tate employs some suspect visual strategies to evoke Rachel's alcoholic delirium. The camera stumbles along with her, the focus goes in and out, and stuttering time signatures suggest the weird perceptual glitches of a drunken blackout.
These flourishes are too self-conscious to be effective, but the movie's real problem lies with the characters. Blunt earns our empathy through the raw force of her performance, but Rachel is a half-drawn figure, and the rest of the characters are barely sketched. They're like forward-facing cardboard cutouts, arranged along the linear track of the story, carefully placed to serve the murder-mystery plot. I didn't care about any of these people, really.
Paula Hawkins's book must be different—I haven't read it—if only because it takes place in London instead of New York. But as presented here, the story of The Girl on the Train just isn't very engaging. It's dark. It's upsetting. It's occasionally hard to swallow. (Nothing about the therapist subplot rings true.) But absent any fully formed characters to care about, it can only really operate on a grim and mechanical level. People behave badly. Awful things happen. It's the feel-bad movie of the fall.