Review: The Girl on the Train is a sluggish mess

This is one train you shouldn't hop, friends!

click to enlarge The Girl on the Train - Dreamworks
The Girl on the Train

The Girl on the Train

2 out of 5 stars

Rated R. Directed by Tate Taylor.

Based on the novel by Paula Hawkins.

Starring Emily Blunt, Rebecca Ferguson, Hayley Bennett, Luke Evans and Justin Theroux.

Opens October 7.

Sourced from the same pop-thriller bookshelf as Gone Girl, Before I Go to Sleep, and The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, The Girl on the Train is a stiff recitation of a story that more than 11 million people already know.

It's directed by Tate Taylor, the guy behind 2011's eminently questionable The Help. Tate Taylor, to everyone's detriment, is not David Fincher. Fincher's fetish for procedural stories is what enlivened Dragon Tattoo and Gone Girl — both films were drum-tight, aesthetically seamless adaptations of pulp source material. The man has clearly found his niche.

Taylor? Well, I'm not sure what Taylor is good at. It may not be directing movies. Despite a stacked bench of collaborators, including stars Emily Blunt, Rebecca Ferguson, and Hayley Bennett, DP Charlotte Bruus Christensen (The Hunt), screenwriter Erin Cressida Wilson (Secretary), and composer Danny Elfman, the most you can say about The Girl on the Train is that it tries.

Lord, does it try. Immediately we are beset by a trio of protagonists, complete with identifying intertitles, and a nonlinear narrative — "6 months ago," "4 months ago," "Last Friday," etc. The voiceover comes thick and fast. Taylor's and Christensen's tics rear their head early: a blanched color palette and overexposed lighting, tons of profile shots that leave two-thirds of the frame empty, and innumerable scenes of Emily Blunt looking out the train window at her reflection before the camera returns to her face.  

Most of my notes are attempts to keep the chronology straight, but as it happens The Twist in this film is predicated entirely on a chance run-in between Emily Blunt and a side character who we know to be important by dint of her casting: you probably don't get Lisa Kudrow in as an extra. And that gets to the heart of the film's issues: for a thriller, it doesn't do much thrilling.

Instead it opts for a vague focus on characters, which in practice means lots of moist showy monologues from people who aren't particularly interesting even in their defects. A film like this doesn't need likability, but it does need to hook you. With three protagonists you'd think the odds of that happening would be even better, but alas.

Eventually we are treated to the standard From The Best-Selling Novel scene of violence done to a woman, here leached of any emotional heft by its sheer superfluousness. By the time the murder happens, we already know the details — the who, the what, the why. Splaying it out onscreen tells us nothing new. This brutality, dutifully shot with just enough restraint to make it into the multiplex, is thus relayed for the audience's pleasure.

The Girl on the Train skirts exploitation, and I don't mean the fun kind: that its plot revolves around abuse, gaslighting and misogyny does not mean it has anything to say about those things. It doesn't. The absurd climax ties everything in a bow; having raised dozens of juicy, unsettling implications it simply waves them aside for a moment of wish fulfillment. It's the kind of gesture that can admittedly come off as powerful in the right context. Rape-revenge movies, for example, make ideologically rich stew out of completely unrealistic circumstances, but The Girl on the Train settles for a dishonest, cheap depiction of abuse — one that treats everything from alcoholism to abortion as pieces of a mind-numbingly dull mystery.

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