It’s strange to be completely ignorant of a giant pop culture phenomenon, but that’s the odd sensation this viewer gets every time I head out to see the latest big-screen adaptation of a big genre fiction bestseller. When you haven’t read these books – not out of snobbery or disinterest, mind you, but because there simply aren’t enough hours in the day – the breathless casting notices and eager anticipation can feel awfully foreign (there is, no kidding, an ad for the movie on its IMDb page with a countdown clock), and can send you into the theater feeling already alienated. But there’s a flip side to that ignorance; free of the burdens of expectation and adaptation, one can sit down and see a movie fresh, without the mind wandering to wonder why this part was left our or how you wouldn’t have cast that actor in that role, no way. You get to just view the movie as a movie.
So while I can’t tell you how well The Girl on the Train captures the spirit and style of the novel it’s adapted from, I can tell you that as a movie, it is some mighty goofy shit.
Emily Blunt stars as Rachel, the titular rail-riding female, who spends those rides longingly gazing out the window at Megan (Haley Bennett), a beautiful young wife who seems to spend most of her days lounging around on her elevated deck in bikinis, and her nights having sex with her husband in front of open windows (you almost expect the big twist to be that her entire marriage was a show put on for Rachel’s benefit, so clumsy is the staging of these voyeuristic moments). “She’s what I lost,” Rachel tells us, her voice trembling, in the woefully bad narration. “She’s everything I want to be…”
The narration is then handed off to Megan, and we discover (gasp) that her marriage actually isn’t so idyllic. “I can’t just be a wife anymore,” she moans, and gets a job as a nanny for the nice family down the street. The mother of that family, Anna (Rebecca Ferguson), completes the triangle of protagonists; come to find out, she’s married to Rachel’s ex-husband, and Rachel spends her days and night getting sloppy drunk, calling and texting her poor harried ex (Justin Theroux). But one day Megan’s full-on-display-for-everybody-on-the-train show consists of her passionately kissing another man; Rachel, furious, goes to confront her for “throwing it all away!” And then she blacks out, and when she wakes up bloody and confused, she discovers Megan has been kidnapped and possibly killed.
All of this is played dead serious, as if they were making some sort of prestige drama about divorce and infidelity and alcoholism, and that’s the first and biggest mistake made by director Tate Taylor (The Help, Get On Up); when you play material this stupid straight, you’re going to get laughs, intentional or not. Sure, you can have a smoldering shrink tell his sex-hungry patient “Don’t make it impossible for us to work together” as she’s fellating his finger, but if you can’t stage that moment with a wink, you shouldn’t be staging it at all.
But the entire film is like that – the sheer artlessness of the compositions and the cutting is sort of shocking for a major studio picture, and Taylor hangs his cast out to dry in scene after scene. Beloved ‘90s television stars Lisa Kudrow, Laura Prepon, and Allison Janney are criminally wasted, given nothing to do but spout plot points; Janney’s turn is particularly absurd, cast as she is as a police detective whose apparent interrogation and investigation strategy is “Lay every card out on the table immediately.” (For that matter, everyone in this movie is spectacularly bad at their jobs. Particularly the people who made it.) Bennett displays none of the oomph of her work in The Magnificent Seven, and Ferguson is totally lacking in the fire that made her the highlight of Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation. To his credit, Taylor does manage to do something I’d previously thought inconceivable: he gets a bad performance out of Emily Blunt, who does the worst kind of bleary-eyed, indicative, 1-to-11 overacting, from one end of the movie to the other.
What’s most surprising, considering its origination point, is that The Girl on the Train is such a bad mystery, full of transparent red herrings and clumsy “clues” and outright cheats of perspective and narrative. It hinges on the bullshittiest of bullshit plot turns, and Taylor can’t even twist (and I do mean twist) its Fatal Attraction bathtub-style climax into a crowd-pleaser. It’s a shame, because in the right hands, with a better script and with a director who could approximate a sense of style, Girl could’ve been an enjoyable bit of pop pulp. As it is, it’s an absurdly executed, sluggishly paced, flatfooted secondhand cartoon. Maybe you have to have read the book.
The Girl on the Train is out Friday.