*Warning: Potential Spoilers*
Normally, when a book is turned into a movie, I do my very best to review the movie without bias and on its own merit, because almost every single book-to-movie adaption will disappoint you if you want it to be exactly like what you read. There are minimal exceptions to this rule (except for The Martian (2015), that was book-to-movie gold). Unfortunately, The Girl on the Train is not one of these exceptions for me, and thankfully for me as a critic, I went to the movie with someone who had not read the book, so I know the feeling of disappointment is not just mine. What started as one of the fastest selling, psychologically thrilling stories of 2015 ended as a jerky, half-thoughtout tale with facets the movie didn’t even begin to touch.
The Girl on the Train centers on Rachel Watson (Emily Blunt), an alcoholic recently divorced who spends her day riding the train past the house where her ex-husband (Justin Theroux) still lives with his new wife (Rebecca Ferguson). In an attempt to distract herself from this happy picture, Rachel starts to focus on a couple who live a few houses down and imagines them as the perfect couple. One day, as the train passes their house, Rachel sees an act in that house that causes her to fly into a rage. The next day, the wife, Megan (Haley Bennett), is reported as missing, and Rachel was so drunk the night before that she doesn’t remember anything that happened. What she does know is that she has bruises and cuts, and she feels that something bad has happened. She involves herself in the case to discover Megan’s whereabouts and to figure out what she was doing the night the other woman disappeared.
Much of what makes the story of The Girl on the Train compelling is the fact that Rachel is unreliable and chaotic, and through her eyes the story we see is not complete. If we were watching this movie almost completely from her point of view, it was be a much better tale. Blunt pulls this off brilliantly – she is the only actor whose character is completely compelling, and honestly the only character whose development makes sense outside of the world of the novel. If anything, the movie actually added to the character of Rachel Watson, which would be great if it didn’t sacrifice the depth of the other characters to do it. Some of the greatest twists surround the couple of Megan and Scott (Luke Evans) Hipwell, and both their characters are so downgraded in this film. Megan’s interesting tendencies stretch back to a past that the movie barely begins to scratch, and for anyone who hasn’t read the book and knows everything that the movie didn’t tell them, her story just seems unfinished. Scott Hipwell is basically reduced to a walking red herring, only he’s so obviously not the droid we’re looking for that we can’t really believe any attempt the film makes to get us to believe that he is. And don’t even get me started on the new wife Anna, whose most meaningful character development is saved up for so late in the film that it almost doesn’t matter anymore.
The problem with attempting to translate this story to the screen is that so, so much of it takes place inside someone’s head. When you take us out of Rachel’s head, interactions that meant something significant to her don’t always mean the same to viewers because her thought process is something most of us never feel (assuming the viewers aren’t alcoholics obsessed with their exes, of course). The film does the best it can to alleviate this gap that can’t be fixed by voiceover alone – Lisa Kudrow’s character Martha is a true surprise, elevating the story almost beyond the point we could have expected from it after a certain amount of time. The addition of certain scenes that give a certain “nudge nudge” to the audience about Rachel and what she’s capable of also gives us more to think about. But it also ruins other characters – again, Scott Hipwell is so much less interesting than he could have been because we view him as someone watching both Scott and Rachel interact, not how Rachel sees Scott, and the point of the story is all about how Rachel sees the world. If we don’t see it like she sees it, we miss the point.
Ironically, however, the best cinematography of the film is when the audience is actually looking through the eyes of Rachel Watson. The moments that we see through her eyes – the drunk, hazy, dark, almost completely confused and incomprehensible moments – are the best ones because they really get back to the heart of what the story was supposed to be. The supposed “thrill” in “thriller” comes from the moments when we doesn’t understand what is happening at all, and when you watch the rest of the film in clarity, it just doesn’t create the same ball of anticipation in your stomach. No matter how beautiful the shots are, the feeling that we understand what’s happening in them lessens the thrill of it all. And since this film never makes us feel like the rug has been completely pulled out from under us and what we saw is not actually “what we saw”, that just leaves an empty feeling where that little “zing” of anticipation and excitement should be.
And what is the point of a thriller when it can’t thrill us, no matter how hard the story and actors try?
Basically, go read the book. You’ll turn the pages with more excitement than you’ll get waiting for the next scene.