With its shifting perspectives, feminist leanings, and third-act twist, Paula Hawkins’ best-selling psychological thriller The Girl on the Train resembles nothing so much as a less-good Gone Girl. Not terrible, by any stretch. A serviceable beach read. But not *flips through positive reviews* “Hitchcockian.” “Might just have earned the title of ‘the next Gone Girl.’” “A smart, searing thriller.” “Ingeniously constructed.” “Has more fun with unreliable narration than any chiller since Gone Girl.” “Gone Girl fans will devour this psychological thriller.” “A natural fit for fans of Gone Girl-style unreliable narrators and twisty, fast-moving plots.” “As tautly constructed as Gone Girl.” “Gone Girl.” “Gone Girl.” “Holy fuck, this book is exactly like Gone Girl, READ IT ALREADY! IT! IS! EXACTLY! LIKE! GONE! GIRL!”
OK, that last quote’s not real, but it could have been. The Penguin marketing department has hustle.
You can’t blame director Tate Taylor (The Help) for The Girl on the Train being a half-baked Gone Girl ripoff, s’what I’m saying. That’s on the source material. I can blame Tate Taylor for The Girl on the Train being bad.
Our unreliable narrator this time around is Rachel (Emily Blunt), who spends her days soaked in booze and riding New York’s Metro-North. (The movie switches the action from the outskirts of London, though Blunt is still allowed to keep her accent.) Still smarting from her ex-husband (Justin Theroux) having left her for another woman (Rebecca Ferguson), Rachel becomes obsessed with Megan (Haley Bennett), a woman who lives down the street from her ex and whose backyard she can see into during her commute. Rachel’s never actually met Megan; rather, she holds her up as a sort of paragon of perfection that Rachel believes she herself can never achieve. But Megan’s life—and Megan herself—is far from perfect, as Rachel begins to discover after Megan disappears one evening.
The main problem The Girl on the Train has is that it’s a Lifetime movie, but it doesn’t know it’s a Lifetime movie. The bulk of the story hinges on the fact that Rachel, due to her excessive drinking, has blackouts, and when she comes to she has no memory of what’s happened to her. And, sure, that happens in real life, but in The Girl on the Train it happens in the most improbably convenient places, i.e. right when Megan disappears, leaving Rachel to believe she may have had something to do with it.
I’m sorry, but when did we let “convenient amnesia” escape from the soap opera hell?
The plot twist, when it happens, is similarly unbelievable if you pause to think about it for two seconds. Character motivations go unexplored, and the characters themselves lack subtlety and nuance. That’s not necessarily a bad thing. Not every movie can—or should—be an incisive, intelligent meditation on the struggles of humanity. Some days I want brain food, and some days I went to veg out on the sofa for a RuPaul’s Drag Race marathon.
But for God’s sake, if you’re going to be a B-movie, be a B-movie. Own that shit. The Girl on the Train lacks the intelligence of Gone Girl, but it didn’t replace it with the cheesy schlock factor it needed to make it consistently entertaining. The Boy Next Door is not some masterpiece in cinema, OK, but that “I love your mother’s cookies” line and Ryan Guzman buying JLo a first edition of the Iliad was hilarious, and I’m convinced director Rob Cohen knew exactly what he was up to. Tate Taylor didn’t. He didn’t get the material. There’s a reason the audience at my screening only started reacting to the movie in the third act, after shit starts getting wild. The reaction? Laughter.
The Girl on the Train is also oddly lacking in heat, despite shots of Haley Bennett’s panties and Luke Evans’ (playing Megan’s husband Scott) v-area. It wants to be sexy, but it’s not. Edgar Ramírez as Megan’s psychologist aside. Obviously.
Not that The Girl on the Train, for all its missed opportunities, is a terrible movie. Blunt and Ferguson are both fine, though not as good as they’ve both shown they can be in other, better projects. (Ferguson, in particular, is saddled with the thankless role of Rachel’s ex’s soccer-mom-in-the-making new wife.) And the part of the movie that I enjoyed—though “enjoyed” isn’t at all the right word in this context—is the one that I can’t really talk too much about, because to do would be to spoil the big twist. But in vague, still spoilery terms: By the end, The Girl on the Train turns into a horror movie about gaslighting and victim-blaming, and I found that part of it really effective. But, on the whole…. eh. Wait for it to hit HBO. Or just watch Gone Girl again.