Rachel (Emily Blunt), the traumatized divorcee at the center of Tate Taylor's The Girl on the Train, drinks away her days on a Metro North train running between Ardsley-on-Hudson and Grand Central Terminal. Despite her regular commute, it's clear she's going nowhere. Every day, Rachel's train passes her old house, where her ex-husband, Tom (Justin Theroux), remains with new wife, Anna (Rebecca Ferguson), and an infant daughter, but the commuter's red-nosed, bleary-eyed gaze becomes fixed on the home of Tom's neighbors, Megan (Haley Bennett) and Scott Hipwell (Luke Evans).
Whenever Rachel's train passes the Hipwells' well-appointed house, she witnesses the couple in varying stages of coitus. Rachel, miserable despite being regularly blessed with this steamy contrivance, idealizes the couple's passion until one fateful commute, when she sees Megan kissing another man. Soon after, Megan disappears, and Rachel transforms from a depressed voyeur to the drunken amateur detective who's also a police suspect. This predictable thriller subsequently takes viewers on the opposite journey, foregoing its promise of twisty adult thrills in favor of a grimly deadpan lecture about messy truths and false perceptions.
Labyrinthine and torpid, this adaptation of Paula Hawkins's bestseller poses as a parable of feminist empowerment while casting its female leads as drunks, sluts, and monstrous housewives. This is, ostensibly, of a piece with the film's master plan to depict how men pit women against one another, forcing them to view one another as one-note villains. But Taylor navigates his complex, flashback-laden narrative with a self-defeating lack of irony.
Tate Taylor's The Girl on the Train is a grimly deadpan lecture about messy truths and false perceptions.
Rachel's unreliability is quickly established through a series of gnomic statements and a set of jaundiced, slow-motion visions redolent of a true-crime reenactment. She's concurrently obsessed with the film's two other narrators, Megan and Anna. The latter is weary from exhausting trips to the farmer's market, while Megan, a self-proclaimed “master of reinvention,” seems most skilled at getting any man in earshot to drop their pants.
Taylor is quick to establish an elaborate tripartite narrative: title cards that denote switches in points of view, and still more title cards that set up a complex temporal structure. The film's present-day action is propelled by Megan's disappearance and Rachel's continued harassment of Tom and Anna; its flashbacks are meant to gradually flesh out the backgrounds of the three leads, trudging through their mistakes and traumas in the distant past back toward Megan's vanishing. Rather than offer any positive definition of its heroines, the film saddles them with tragedies and ugly aspersions: Infertility and adultery are running themes, and the closest the screenplay gets to the zeitgeisty topicality of Gone Girl. The only shred of wit in The Girl on the Train comes at the expense of the film's idiot men, whose computer passwords are the names of the women with whom they're having affairs.
It's a dumb joke, but at least it's a little campy. The same can't be said of the lazy performances or plodding, chaotic structural gambits. With a parodically high volume of shots of women waking up from traumatic nightmares and fantasies, the film plays like a jilted lover's spin on Inception: It's rarely clear when Taylor's toggling back to the present from a flashback, and the film's teasing air of unreliability yields a few dreams and visions that appear to be false. Maybe this is all an echo of Rachel's trajectory from unreliable villain to flawed heroine, but Blunt's unnervingly committed performance is an awkward fit with the film's array of one-note heroes and villains.
Ferguson and Bennett, both resembling Rosamund Pike in Gone Girl, fail to assert any authority over hopelessly submissive roles, and Theroux and Édgar Ramírez (as a sexy, inexplicably Middle Eastern therapist) project bland malevolence, giving up the ghost on the film's expected turn toward men-are-scum outrage. Before we get there, though, The Girl on the Train is a joyless slough, both figuratively and literally dragging its women through the mud.