Described as delivering a ‘Hitchcock-style punch’ and possessing ‘Hitchcockian inspirations’, it is hard to imagine Mr Hitchcock being particularly pleased with such comparisons given that The Girl on the Train is a disjointed, somewhat bland thriller that struggles to overcome its fundamental flaw; a cast of characters who are neither likeable nor interesting enough to illicit much sympathy for their plight. Perhaps the problem stems from the fact that there is nothing about the book on which the film is based that stands it apart as something particularly special in what is perhaps the most congested literary genre of all, other than the fact that it was a huge seller. There seems little doubt that that the popularity of Paula Hawkins’ novel, coupled with the success of the screen adaptation of (the far superior) Gone Girl in 2014, have been the catalyst for the development of this project, rather than any opportunity to present something particularly unique.
The girl of the title is Rachel Watson (Emily Blunt), an aimless young divorcee who spends her days sipping vodka from a water bottle, riding the train and obsessing over her ex-husband Tom (Justin Theroux). During her daily commute, Rachel becomes fixated on Megan and Scott Hipwell (Haley Bennett and Luke Evans), a young couple whose house sits adjacent to the railway line and also happens to be only a few doors down from the home Tom shares with his new wife Anna (Rebecca Ferguson). Catching glimpses of Megan and Scott each morning and afternoon, Rachel fills her mind with romanticised notions of their life together, a fantasy somewhat removed from reality as we discover soon enough. When Megan vanishes, Rachel sets out to investigate, only to find herself implicated when it is revealed that she was in the area on the night of Megan’s disappearance. The problem is that an alcohol-induced blackout has left Rachel with no memory of the night in question. From this point, the course of events is revealed to the audience as Rachel herself slowly begins to recall what transpired.
The story shifts back and forward in time, offering some insight into the events from the past that have shaped the course of events that unfold, but it is so hard to care much about Rachel and the predicament in which she finds herself. In fact, nobody here emerges as a particularly pleasant person as secrets and lies are revealed. The changes made in the transition from page to screen – such as the relocation of the story from London to the suburbs of New York – seem more to do with placating those studio suits who simply cannot imagine that there is a world beyond America. In the book, Rachel is presented as a slovenly mess whose alcoholism has left her in physical and psychological disarray, whereas the movie has her seeming decidedly less pitiful. In fact, she looks pretty good for somebody who has supposedly spent two years drinking all day every day. Blunt does her best with a character devoid of any common sense, lurching from one bad decision to another and only learning the truth about what transpired through the return of her memory rather than any investigative effort on her part.
Perhaps because I am familiar with the book, and therefore aware of what happens to whom, I never found anything that takes place to be particularly suspenseful even though director Tate Taylor does keep the circumstances of Megan’s disappearance under wraps much longer than Hawkins does in the book. Whilst Taylor – working from a script penned by Hawkins and Erin Cressida Wilson – doesn’t bring anything new to the genre and he certainly under-utilises the considerable talents of Allison Janney as the detective investigating Megan’s disappearance, some may find the ending a surprise enough to make the journey worth their while. Ultimately, The Girl on the Train is very much like the book on which it is derived; uninspired and lacking the narrative chutzpah to make it stand out as something special.