2 stars (out of 4)
There’s a big mystery at stake, and it has nothing to do with the case of the missing blonde.
Here goes: How did Paula Hawkins’ spine-tingling 2015 bestseller, The Girl on the Train, turn into a plodding Lifetime-esque melodrama that’s devoid of suspense?
The evidence is everywhere. From the overwrought acting to the thick dreariness that practically permeates through the air, this adaptation will disappoint fans crossing their fingers for the next Gone Girl — or just an old-fashioned entertaining night at the movies. Sorry, it really is that unpleasant.
The Girl on the Train is Rachel (Emily Blunt), a lonely alcoholic who rides the Metro-North railroad from suburban New York to Manhattan every day with a despondent, glazed look on her face. The only moment she perks up during the commute is when she glimpses out at a seemingly perfect-looking couple cuddling on their back porch. “She’s everything I want to be,” she says dreamily via voiceover of the golden-haired, long-legged woman in the relationship. The pair also happens to live on the same street as her ex-husband Tom (Justin Theroux), his mistress-turned-wife (Rebecca Ferguson) and their baby girl. Needless to say, Rachel’s marriage did not end well.
One morning, Rachel is jolted when she looks out the window and catches said mystery woman (Haley Bennett) snugly in the arms of another man. Perhaps. Rachel also fills her water bottle with vodka and can barely see straight, so she could be mistaken. That’s why she feels compelled to exit the train at the couple’s stop on her way home and investigate. But as she staggers through the dense park and into a tunnel, everything goes black. She wakes up in her bed the next morning feeling hungover and caked in blood. She can’t remember what happened during that missing block of time — not even after an investigator (Allison Janney) turns up to tell her that the blonde is named Megan Hipwell and she’s disappeared. In the days to come, her partially decomposed body will be found in the woods.
A vicious murder and a slew of suspects burrowing through the leafy New York suburbs? That set-up should carry vast amounts of tension as well as emotional heft. But the film sputters, starting with its utterly miserable characters. In clumsy flashbacks, we learn the victim was a snippy, philandering wanderlust who complained to her psychiatrist that her life circled the drain because her hot, possibly emotionally abusive husband (Luke Evans) wanted a baby. If she weren’t already dead, people might want to kill her just for the way she aggressively comes on to the disinterested shrink. Tom and his new missus, Anna, are just as insufferable as bored yuppies.
A relatable heroine might have been the game changer. But Blunt fails to convey her character’s layers. Rachel has a self-destructive streak, especially when she ruminates on a life that slipped away. She slurs her words and stumbles around her apartment and lies to her roommate (Laura Prepon) about her whereabouts. No question she starts out as a sympathetic sad sack. Alas, throughout the ordeal, she remains a sympathetic sad sack. In the book, Rachel comes to life because while she's deeply flawed, she seeks personal redemption and has a fire burning inside her — that's why she make such concerted efforts to piece together a stranger's death. Here, no matter how many times director Tate Taylor (The Help) zooms in on Blunt's porcelain face, she's little more than a glassy-eyed, whispering enigma.
Despite Rachel’s unreliable narration and a suspicious handsome husband, the Gone Girl–like twist never arrives. Factor out the red herrings, and the resolution seems obvious. Even if it weren't, the payoff is too muddled and anticlimactic to elicit a jaw-dropping reaction. Though Taylor has boasted that the film’s ending diverges from the source material, the changes are not necessarily for the better. The final moments in particular don't land as ominously as what Hawkins wrote on the page. (Audience members in my screening actually cackled.)
Maybe the real problem is that Gone Girl set the genre bar too high. Thanks to auteur David Fincher at the helm, that was a perfect mix of crafty storytelling and haunting thrills. Hawkins’ book is more meditative, and the transition to the big screen was always going to be a calculated risk. What a shame the result is a one-way journey to nowhere.
(The Girl on the Train opens Friday, October 7.)
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