She's So Gone: "Girl on the Train" absorbing but not much more than well-acted potboiler

The Girl on the Train (2016)
112 min., rated R.

There is enough good over the duration of “The Girl on the Train” to keep this adaptation of Paula Hawkins’ 2015 novel on the rails, but with one caveat: expect less than meets the eye. As this twisty page-turner has been likened to “Gone Girl” and the supremely crafted 2014 film adaptation, there are thematic similarities but even more significant differences. Whereas director David Fincher’s verve, precision and wicked wit gave Gillian Flynn’s best-seller a delectable kick, director Tate Taylor (2011’s “The Help”) and screenwriter Erin Cressida Wilson (2014’s “Men, Women & Children”), who transplants the story’s setting from London to New York, don’t quite find the same success with Hawkins’ book. Part character study, part soapy melodrama, and part domestic whodunit, the film nevertheless lives up to the allure of the paperback pulp in the way everything unfolds to the strength of the performances of a uniformly attractive cast. When you get right down to it, “The Girl on the Train” winds up being a skillfully acted Lifetime potboiler without turning campy.

Twice a day, Rachel Watson (Emily Blunt) commutes from the suburbs to Manhattan for work by train. Each time, she looks at the houses adjacent to the tracks, particularly one that belongs to a seemingly perfect married couple whom she has never met. Being divorced and an alcoholic, Rachel loses herself when gazing from afar, wondering what their lives are like and wanting what they have. Said couple is pretty blonde Megan Hipwell (Haley Bennett) and husband Scott (Luke Evans), who look like they couldn’t be any more in love. Megan is a nanny two doors down to the baby of Rachel’s ex-husband, Tom (Justin Theroux), and his new wife, Anna (Rebecca Ferguson), with whom he was having an affair when still married. One of those mornings, Rachel sees Megan on her balcony kissing another man who isn’t Scott but maybe Megan’s therapist, Dr. Kamal Abdic (Édgar Ramírez), but what happens later that day becomes fuzzy by her memory lapses when Rachel experiences another drunken blackout. It turns out that Megan has gone missing when Rachel is questioned by hard-nosed Detective Riley (Allison Janney). What's a girl on a train to do?

In its setup, “The Girl on the Train” gives the impression that it will play throughout as an emotionally rich character triptych with three unreliable narrators in the form of Rachel, Megan, and Anna. When it stays on this path and we follow Rachel's shaky perception of the other women, it is awfully intriguing. None of them are perfect, and all of them have either had a child, wanted a child but could not conceive, or never wished to have a child. And as for the men, all of them are red herrings, whether they are controlling or just suspicious, while there’s a real misandrist treatment of one of them. Above all (even the central murder mystery), Rachel’s journey toward psychological clarity is plenty absorbing. Over the course of the film, the details of Rachel’s tragedy are gradually revealed and allow her to be more empathetic. Like “Gone Girl,” part of the enticing thrill and fun here is peeling away the layers with its “Rashomon”-quality narrative structure that keeps weaving between time and perspectives to reveal each character’s salacious or tragic truth.

Bleary-eyed and admirably unglamorous, a well-cast Emily Blunt retains her British accent that only makes her Rachel even more of an outsider. Diving right in to play such a broken, pathetic, and flawed protagonist who may or may not be trusted, Emily Blunt is riveting, her raw and vivid work as a blackout drunk being the most noteworthy asset the film has to offer. Haley Bennett (2016’s “The Magnificent Seven”) gets to add shades of vulnerability to Megan, who could have just remained an objectified sexpot but holds far more complexity and insecurity. Anna isn’t nearly as fully drawn, but Rebecca Ferguson (2015’s “Mission: Impossible - Rogue Nation”) brings some sympathy to an underwritten role that of a cold “other woman.” Luke Evans, Justin Theroux, and Édgar Ramírez all do what they can, while Laura Prepon, as Rachel’s roommate Cathy, acts as a voice of reason and then disappears halfway through for no reason.

Sleekly photographed (though Tate Taylor’s editorial choices are often questionable) and earning a boost from Danny Elfman’s uncharacteristic but fittingly haunting score, "The Girl on the Train" initially seems weighty before it settles for tawdry. Without the element of surprise, the film would not work at all. That isn’t to say that the final reveal of who was involved with Megan’s disappearance will come as a jaw-dropping shock—through the process of elimination, it might become clear to some more quickly than others—but the screenplay does a fair job of throwing the viewer off-balance beforehand and wringing tension out of how Rachel fits into the crime. While “The Girl on the Train” might not be the water-cooler thriller of 2016, it is most certainly pretty juicy guilty-pleasure trash. No matter the quality of the destination, the ride there is still worthwhile.

Grade: B -