Imagine if “Gone Girl” had been developed as a toothless network television pilot — if it had been stripped of its subversive approach to gender dynamics, bludgeoned free of its sadistic gallows humor and shot like a very special episode of “NCIS: Suburbia.” Imagine if it hadn’t been directed by a filmmaker who’s drawn to trash the way that most people are to perfume, someone who genuinely believes you can learn as much about marriage and misogyny from the novels sold at an airport bookstore as you can from those taught in a college classroom. Imagine instead that it had been directed by the guy who made “The Help.”
Adapted from Paula Hawkins’ explosively popular novel of the same name, “The Girl on the Train” is nothing if not a story that’s stuck on rails. Rachel Watson (Emily Blunt) spends most of her time speaking in voiceover, if only because there’s no one left to listen to her talk. “My husband used to tell me I have an overactive imagination,” she says to us at the start of the film, shortly before we learn that her overactive imagination is one of the only things she got to keep in the divorce. And it hasn’t exactly been serving her well in her single life: A violent alcoholic who’s been crashing on her friend’s messy spare room for the better part of two years, Rachel seems to spend most of her time riding the commuter rail between Ardsley-on-Hudson and Grand Central Station, and projecting her fantasies onto the beautiful suburbanites she sees in the houses that run along the tracks.
There’s one couple in particular who she always looks for as the train whips by their windows, a beautiful blonde named Megan (“Kaboom” star Haley Bennett) and her husband, Scott (“Fast & Furious 6” baddie Luke Evans). “She’s what I lost,” Rachel convinces herself from within the sterile and decidedly unromantic Metro-North car. But, in one of several clichés that this movie is more than happy to prove true, the grass is never as green as it looks from the other side — especially not in white-collar Westchester.
When Megan commandeers the narration during the film’s clumsy opening passages, she identifies herself as “the mistress of self-reinvention,” a woman who’s never been comfortable as being any one thing to any one person. Perhaps feeling a bit too defined by her marriage to her husband, she begins seducing her therapist (Edgar Ramírez, himself still defined by his title role in Olivier Assayas’ epic “Carlos”). Rachel is accustomed to seeing Megan stand on the patio of her house in nothing but her underwear — director Tate Taylor fails to thread the needle between fantasy and reality, his town and country dioramas ultimately feeling at once like both and neither — but Rachel’s entire world starts to crumble after she spots the stranger getting real close with another man on her patio. She grows obsessed. She sticks her nose into it. And when Megan goes missing a little while later, it’s Rachel who wakes up the next morning with blood all over her clothes and no recollection of where she’d been the previous night.
And so kicks off an eminently disposable murder-mystery in which our self-loathing heroine fears that she might be the killer, even though literally every other character she encounters had more concrete motivation to commit the crime. In fact, she isn’t even aware of her only provable connection to the victim: Until the time of her disappearance, Megan had been babysitting for Rachel’s ex-husband, Tom (Justin Theroux) and his fertile new wife, Anna (Rebecca Ferguson of “Mission: Impossible — Rogue Nation” fame). What are the odds?
“The Girl on the Train,” it turns out, is not exactly the second coming of Agatha Christie, but at least the novel had the good sense to disguise the obviousness of its whodunnit with keen insight and some sharply serrated prose. The film, on the other hand, pays lip-service to big ideas so that it can focus the brunt of its energy on ginning up cheap suspense and softcore sex appeal.
The blandly functional script by “Men, Women & Children” writer Erin Cressida Wilson makes a half-hearted attempt to reflect the perspectives of its three female leads (there are title cards with each of their names on them and everything), but this is clearly Rachel’s story. All of these women have allowed themselves to be defined by the men in their lives, but only Rachel is afraid of herself, afraid of the woman she’s become. “I have to remember…,” she says, referring to both the night of the murder and the person she used to be — if only the movie had the sense to recognize that the former is infinitely less interesting than the latter. But it doesn’t. Not even a little bit.
Instead, this becomes just another one of those tedious “psychological thrillers” in which very real behaviors like repression and denial are treated like the missing pieces of a jigsaw puzzle, like things that could be solved if only someone reminded you to look under the cushion of your couch. There are major exceptions (“Waltz With Bashir” comes to mind), but there are few things worse than forgettable movies about selective amnesia — movies like “Spellbound,” in which the protagonist’s mental block is magically cured by some dime-store psychology and the restorative powers of a third act reveal.
At least Hitchcock had Salvador Dalí on hand to help spice up his sets — Taylor only has the MTA. He’s only interested in shooting the surface of things, as though something can’t possibly exist if it’s not dead in the center of an uncluttered medium shot. His camera dissuades the story from engaging with whatever depth was there in the first place, every frame so boring that it’s almost as though the movie is gaslighting its audience into thinking that Hawkins’ book was bad to begin with.
Fortunately, Blunt is there to remind us of what could have been, and not just because her British accent nods back to the setting of the novel. All splotchy cheeks and blinkered eyes, Blunt plays Rachel as a woman flushed with failure and dizzy with the rage that she directs towards herself, filtering Shakespearian pathos through James Patterson dialogue. Taylor, to his credit, has always had a flair for encouraging his actresses to lead with their energy, and Bennett and Ferguson both run roughshod over their male scene partners. Luke Evans, by comparison, is pretty much just flesh-colored wallpaper with an iliac furrow. Meanwhile, Theroux skulks around like he’s looking for a way out, and Ramírez lets his beard do most of the heavy lifting.
Perhaps it’s inevitable that “The Girl on the Train” plays like a flimsy, artificially sweetened version of David Fincher’s lurid trash-terpiece — the source material, for all of its strengths, was still a less savvy and satirical version of the Gillian Flynn thriller that inspired one of 2014’s best films. But no matter how basic Hawkins’ book might be in comparison to some of the ones that came before it, it’s hard to argue that it didn’t deserve better than this, that any story so smartly attuned to the need for women to hear themselves and each other should be reduced to such flavorless swill. “Gone Girl” may have been trash, but “The Girl on the Train” is pure garbage.
“The Girl on the Train” will be in theaters on Friday, October 7.