There is a girl—and a missing girl at that—but Gone Girl this is not.
I was so looking forward to The Girl on the Train, the film adaptation of the bestselling novel by Paula Hawkins. I heard about the book a while ago and even read the first chapter or two, but my Kindle’s battery died and I forgot all about it until I realised the film was just around the corner. So as I usually do, I decided to just watch the movie version instead.
It starts off intriguing enough: A woman (Emily Blunt) who rides a train into New York for work likes to watch a seemingly happy couple as she passes their house every day. Then of course, something shocking happens, and she finds herself drawn into a missing person / murder mystery that is somehow intertwined with her own history. Like Gone Girl, it has damaged characters, utilises the narrative device of a potentially unreliable narrator, and cuts back and forth in time and through different points of view, gradually piecing together the clues to the mystery like pieces of a puzzle.
Sadly, I would have to call Girl on the Train an average disappointment. I thought I would like it a little more, considering that I had seen some of the lukewarm reviews (just the ratings, without reading anything) and thought low expectations might be beneficial in this case. But even leaving plot holes aside, I found the story—and especially the mystery at the heart of it—very predictable (more on this later), and most importantly, lacking in genuine suspense. This film tried to be this year’s Gone Girl, a deserved smash hit, but was really just a B-grade thriller more in the vein of 2014’s Before I Go to Sleep. That was based on a bestselling book too and starred Nicole Kidman, but it came and went, doing poorly both with critics and at the box office.
As such, The Girl on the Train is a waste of a talented cast that also includes Rebecca Ferguson (the standout from Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation), Justin Theroux, Haley Bennett, Luke Evans, Edgar Ramirez, Laura Prepon, Lisa Kudrow, and the always wonderful Allison Janney, who all deliver quite solid performances.
However, there are just some very fundamental problems with the movie. First of all, the whole “girl on the train” thing is a bit of a gimmick. It sounds intriguing, but is really not much more than a hook lead into the story. It doesn’t take long before the whole train thing becomes an irrelevant part of the story. Moreover, as I understand it, the book was based in London, whereas for the film they switched the setting to New York. And yet they got Emily Blunt to keep her accent and play a British woman. It doesn’t hurt the movie much, though I think a London setting would have suited the overall vibe better.
Secondly, there is a point of view problem with this movie. I’m sure it works better on the pages of a book, because on the screen it struggles to build a proper narrative thread. The story is told from at least three points of view because there are parts of it that Emily Blunt’s character could not have possibly known. Also, it jumps back in time quite often, from several years to a few months to a few days, breaking any momentum in the suspense the film manages to build. So the structure really takes the film away from Blunt’s protagonist, and as a result it doesn’t feel like we are in this mystery with her, trying to figure everything out alongside her. Instead, we’re simply watching from afar as the story feeds us bits and pieces of information in an arbitrary way, making it feel more manipulative. It doesn’t help that there aren’t any particularly sympathetic or at least interesting characters.
Thirdly, the answer to the central mystery is not very hard to guess. I would be very surprised if more than half of the people who watched it didn’t figure it out at least an hour away from the ending. A lot of it has to do with the script, but some blame also needs to go director Tate Taylor (The Help), who doesn’t offer enough red herrings and suspects to mislead the audience. There just aren’t many alternate possibilities to explain what happened, especially because you know the most obvious answer in such movies are almost always wrong.
Nonetheless, I wouldn’t called The Girl on the Train a terrible film. It’s not poorly made and the cast and performances are pretty good. But it’s just an uninspiring adaptation that fails to bring out whatever it is that made the source material “the novel that shocked the world”.
2.5 stars out of 5