There’s something missing in The Girl on the Train. And we’re not just talking about Haley Bennett’s restless housewife, whose sudden disappearance drives this psychological thriller. Tate Taylor’s efficient adaptation of Paula Hawkins’ eponymous best-seller might have all the makings of a gripping who dunnit, but somehow the end result struggles to keep attentions engaged.
Emily Blunt plays the titular girl on the train Rachel, a lonely divorcee who uses her daily commute to fantasise about the lives of two happy couples as she passes their homes on the way to New York. The first is home to Megan (Bennett) and Scott (Luke Evans), beautiful and seemingly perfect lovers who represent everything Rachel has lost. The second is Rachel’s former home where her ex-husband Tom (Justin Theroux) is shacked up with their former realtor Anna (Rebecca Ferguson) and the baby girl she could never have.
Many an eyebrow was raised when the location switch to New York’s commuter belt was first announced, but in many ways the new setting feels like an even better fit for the novel’s themes. The spacious, white picket-fenced homes sat right on the Hudson river are the perfect embodiment of the idyllic suburban lifestyle Rachel desires, while their wide view windows are much more suited to spying on neighbours from a passing train than the densely-packed terraces of London.
It’s Rachel’s obsession with the gorgeous Megan that forms the crux of the mystery as Rachel spots her dream girl smooching an unknown lover on the balcony one evening. The next morning she wakes to the news that Megan is missing as the police come calling to find out what she saw the day before. The only problem is Rachel can’t remember a thing because she blacked out in a drunken stupor before making it home that night.
Blunt convincingly portrays Rachel’s drink addiction – with a little help from Tate’s hazy camerawork – which is used effectively to build doubt around her version of events. Unable to recall her movements from the night before, Rachel is an unreliable narrator and her protestations of innocence become increasingly shaky as she remembers she was more involved in Megan’s abduction than she initially thought. The plot sticks surprisingly close to the source material, but for those who haven’t yet read up on the story there are plenty of shocking twists and turns, which should make for a compelling watch.
And yet, The Girl on the Train offers very few reasons to feel invested in the outcome of the investigation. It appears as though much of the characterisation was lost in transit from page to screen – Anna’s voice, in particular, is completely absent here. Theroux’s Tom is just a bland suburban husband wearing a regulation suit and tie. Evans’ Scott is possessive, bordering on abusive, towards his wife, but the reasons behind his actions are never explored. Rachel’s troubling behaviour while under the influence has also been softened – most likely to make her appear more likeable – but this takes away her edge and turns her into a sad, pathetic drunk for whom no-one seems to care.
Bennett’s Morgan is by far the most intriguing presence here, a disturbing tragedy revealed to be the cause of her self-destructive actions, but by necessity she spends much of the plot out of sight and out of mind. With the novel’s multiple perspectives removed in order to streamline the narrative for the screen, there are very few layers left to the protagonists. It’s fine for characters to be unlikeable, but they should never be this dull.
The Girl on the Train is not the first grip-lit adaptation to stumble on its way to the big screen – 2014’s Before I go to Sleep is a recent example – but it fails to reverse the trend. There’s an enticing thriller to be made out of this story – not to mention some commendable performances – but Taylor and screenwriter Erin Cressida Wilson struggle to find a way to bring to life what was so compelling on the page.
Runtime: 112 mins; Genre: Thriller; Released: 5 October 2016;
Director: Tate Taylor; Writers: Erin Cressida Wilson (script), Paula Hawkins (novel);
Cast: Emily Blunt, Hayley Bennett, Rebecca Ferguson, Luke Evans, Justin Theroux