The Girl on the Train, the bestselling book by British journalist-turned-novelist Paula Hawkins, deserves a much better adaptation than the movie that’s just arrived in theaters bearing its name. Hawkins’s strength as a novelist lies in her ability to turn quotidien situations into grounds for commentary on the limits and untrustworthiness of personal perspective. The movie, directed by Tate Taylor (The Help), doesn’t deviate much from the premises, personae, and plot twists of the novel, yet it’s never as insightful as the text. Something has gotten lost in translation, so with the story pretty much intact we’re left to wonder—what caused this cinematic trainwreck?
Lead actress Emily Blunt certainly isn’t to blame. Blunt plays Rachel, the titular girl on the train and an alcoholic New York divorcée. Rachel, unemployed, spends her days taking the train into the city, dwelling on her past failures and seeking an escape from reality by fantasizing about the seemingly blissful life of one of the suburban women she espies daily on her commute. One day that woman, who we learn is a nanny for Rachel’s ex-husband’s new wife, goes missing, turning Rachel into a DIY detective. Rachel’s perspective, as in the novel, is intercut with point-of-view scenes from the lives of these two women—Megan (Haley Bennett), the missing nanny, and Anna (Rebecca Ferguson), the new wife. Megan and Anna are each put through the wringer of traumatizing experiences, yet neither Bennett nor Ferguson has the charisma to elevate her character beyond a bland archetype. Perhaps they’re only the victims of Emily Blunt’s virtuosity as an actress. An alcoholic character like Rachel is a beacon for potentially awful performances, yet Blunt takes the higher and more difficult road by playing Rachel with an awareness of how sordid life as an alcoholic can be instead of stooping to reality TV-style histrionics.
Alcoholism and its aftereffects feature heavily in the movie, which might not have been so problematic if the movie in question weren’t also a twist-laden potboiler. Mixing the heaviness of the one subject with the pulpiness of the other (and without leaving any room for self-deprecation or wit) makes for an inappropriate mix. Worse, the movie ultimately has nothing interesting to say about alcoholism. Rachel spends the movie going nowhere with her drinking problem until, at last, her alcoholism is reduced to just another element in the movie’s series of plot twists.
The Girl on the Train might not have been a half-bad movie if it had deviated from its source material in order to craft its own, original take on alcoholism. What we get instead is an adaptation that pays such close attention to ticking off all the surface elements of the book that it never looks up from the checklist to see if the resulting film is actually watchable. After spending its first hour mostly focused on Rachel, the film blossoms—more in the manner of a corpse flower than of a rose—into a triptych about the lives of unhappy suburban women. Just as Rachel is wracked by her relationship with alcohol, we come to learn that Megan was haunted by guilt over a lost child; Anna, meanwhile, deals with mounting paranoia over the question of her husband’s fidelity. In novelistic form, these interspliced tales of woe are less suffocating than they are onscreen because Hawkins’s prose gives the reader ample space to breathe in between the tough-to-stomach episodes.
The film, by comparison, trudges leadenly from one depressing scene to the next. Blame the director: Tate Taylor sets the wrong tone early on by devoting too much uninterrupted time to Rachel’s gloomy daily routine. And once this unsettling feeling has been established, it is only exacerbated by his use of exclusively medium, close-up, and (his unfortunate favorite) extreme close-up shots. Watching the faces of three women in distress for two hours is a deeply upsetting experience, but all the more so when there’s never any relief along the way—even if only in the form of a wide-angle landscape shot to dwell on just long enough to help us gather our bearings.
You could argue that such a film, shot entirely with claustrophobic camerawork, has the potential to say something illuminating about the unspoken tolls, psychological or otherwise, of domestic life for 21st-century women. Alas, it all feels accidental and antithetical to this film’s success. With nary a thrilling moment to recommend itself—even the bursts of sex or violence that punctuate the story are incongruous with the rest of the movie’s plodding syntax—The Girl on the Train will have a hard time selling tickets to future passengers once the deadening word of mouth leaves the station.
Tim Markatos is an editorial fellow at The American Conservative.