If you watched 2014’s Gone Girl and found yourself wishing it were about 80 percent dumber, have I got a movie for you. The Girl on the Train harbors aspirations of similar neo-noir potboiler pulpiness but seems to have lost sight of the fact that such enterprises are supposed to be fun. I’m not familiar with the novel on which this film is based, but it’s safe to say that if the book is anything like the movie, author Paula Hawkins will not find a place alongside Patricia Cornwell and Sue Grafton on my mom’s yearly trash-fiction Christmas list.
The story is typical of the genre — rife with infidelity, violence and murky character motivations. This movie packs enough neurosis and psychosexual dysfunction to make a Woody Allen character seem well-adjusted. Ordinarily that wouldn’t be a drawback in and of itself, but the film handles its characterization so ineptly that what could have been a provocative mystery-thriller comes across as little more than salacious sleaze. While all noir explores the darker side of humanity, that exploration is usually a lot more entertaining than this.
The story follows recently divorced alcoholic Rachel, played with demented zeal by Emily Blunt, as she commutes to Manhattan on the titular train while fantasizing about the seemingly perfect lives of people she sees from the window. The intriguingly Hitchcockian voyeurism of the premise is jettisoned almost immediately in favor of a plot that could just as easily have come from a rejected Law and Order spec script, and things only get worse from there as Rachel stalks her ex-husband and his new wife — along with their neighbors for some reason. Nothing in this film amounts to much more than a contrived afterthought, with characters placed in physical and psychological proximity to one another for no logical reason other than narrative convenience.
Said narrative plays like it was crafted with the questionable aid of a few too many glasses of cheap chardonnay, its world populated exclusively by unlikeable women and ineffectual men whose soap opera shenanigans come across as oversexed without ever being sexy. Whether this particular failing can be attributed to the source material or to a flawed adaptation by screenwriter Erin Cressida Wilson may be a subject of speculation on my part, but there can be little doubt about the more obvious problems with the script. The pacing can be generously described as glacial, the dialogue sounds like it was pulled straight from a Harlequin romance novel and the plot “twists” are about as unpredictable as the next scheduled stop down the train tracks.
Director Tate Taylor could reasonably be expected to have thoroughly mastered the art of adapting book club bestsellers after his highly acclaimed work on The Help (2011), but the superficial polish that characterizes his aesthetic is ill-suited to his subject matter here. The only thing more uniformly abused than the women in this film might be the closeup as a formal tool in Taylor’s hands. More damningly, he takes another stab at the nonlinear approach to narrative that he used to questionable effect in Get On Up (2014) — but this time he’s juggling three unreliable narrators, which muddies the waters significantly. The result is a jumbled mess of a film, saddled with symbolism as blunt as its lead actress’ surname and hamstrung by an awkward voice-over narration that drops out after its expositional purpose is served. If Gone Girl got away with its gimmicky premise, it was thanks to the artful ministrations of director David Fincher, and Taylor falls far short of that level of filmic virtuosity.
There is undeniably a market for this sort of film, and I would never fault any moviegoer for indulging in a proclivity for pulp any more than I would criticize my mom for wanting a mindless mystery novel to read every now and then. The problem here is not the subject matter but the execution. The Girl on the Train is every bit as tedious as a long commute, and it lacks the payoff of any meaningful or gratifying destination. Don’t get railroaded into this one. Rated R for violence, sexual content, language and nudity.
Now playing at Asheville Pizza and Brewing, Carolina Cinemark, Carmike 10, Regal Biltmore Grande, UA Beaucatcher, Epic of Hendersonville