There's a mind-boggling mystery that throbs at the heart of the R-rated thriller "The Girl on the Train." I don't mean the plot's focus of "What happened to the pretty blond newlywed suburbanite Megan Hipwell?" I mean the darker, more unnerving question of how a movie adaptation of Paula Hawkin's bestselling novel, cast with a pair of Hollywood's most mesmerizing actresses (Emily Blunt and Rebecca Ferguson), penned by celebrated "Secretary" screenwriter Erin Cressida Wilson, and directed by acclaimed "The Help" helmer Tate Taylor can go so disastrously off the rails.
Blunt stars as Rachel Watson, a recently divorced drunkard obsessed with the picture perfect life of Megan (Haley Bennett) that she observes every day from the New York's Metro North train line. One day, she witnesses something that will throw her whole world into spin, sucking in her ex-husband Tom (Justin Theroux), his new bride Anna (Ferguson), Megan, her jealous husband (Luke Evans), and her dashing shrink (Edgar Ramirez). Remarkably, Taylor, who so deftly distinguished a plethora of characters in his adaptation of Kathryn Stockett's novel "The Help," struggles to craft a single compellingly complex character in this whole excruciatingly mediocre outing.
Screenwriter Wilson was faced with a daunting challenge adapting Hawkins novel where the story unfolds from three points of view, each chapter designated to Rachel, Megan, or Anna. Pages and pages of internal monologue are transformed into tediously long voiceover and verbal vomit. Wilson chisels out excuses like drunken rants, AA meetings, and therapy sessions to allow characters to monologue at length and not just spell out plot points, but also recite character development. In the book, Hawkins eases us into Rachel's obsession with the Hipwells and her debilitating addiction. But the film cuts to the quick, shedding all subtlety as Rachel slurs sloppily minutes in, then crows in her first voiceover jag, "(Megan) is everything I want to be."
A common guideline for the visual medium of filmmaking is "show, don't tell." Yet again and again, Wilson's script undercuts the actors, asking them to state their characters' state of mind instead of playing them. Taylor has a solid cast, but cuts them off at the knees with aggressive exposition dumps and hackneyed speeches about jealousy and regret. And they're further failed by miscasting.
In the novel, Rachel is described as the kind of obvious haggard drunk you'd avoid on the train. Blunt--even with bags under her eyes and uncombed hair--does not look like she's fallen hard into a bottle night after night. So when an enraged man bellows in her face about how he'd never be attracted to someone like her, some in my audience flat-out guffawed. (And it wouldn't be the first time.) Likewise miscast, Ferguson--who had us in awe as a kickass spy in "Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation"--is slapped unrecognizable in a dull blonde wig, her charisma drowned in a sulking housewife whose motivations have been stripped away with much of the book's grittier details.
It's clear from the start with its ominous Danny Elfman score and wistful stares as beautiful frowning white people that Taylor is gunning hard to make his "Gone Girl." And indeed, "Gone Girl" was the comparison many made when describing why I should read the book, as in: If you liked "Gone Girl," you'll love "Girl on the Train!" But the comparison is superficial at best.
Yes, both are thrillers that look at a crime from different first-person perspectives, and both play with gender dynamics. But while Gillian Flynn's novel was ripe with cultural critique, sensuality, sophistication, and a pitch-black thread of humor, Hawkins' story employed cheats, reveled in the tawdry, and ended with an unearned twist. Taylor's film strives for sexy, but achieves only smutty, leering at his female leads even as they have mental breakdowns. He attempts some equal opportunity objectification with one gaze at Evan's exposed hips. But it's so half-hearted that it earned "arghs" not "ahs."
Taylor's direction becomes disastrous in the big finale. Having played the film so straight-faced, its final reveals and violence feel preposterous, sparking outbursts of laughter in a packed press screening.
Don't believe the hype. This is no "Gone Girl." This is like if someone told you, "Oh you like steak? Then you'll love McDonald's hamburgers." It might technically have the same base, but only one will be juicy enough to be truly satisfying.
"The Girl on The Train" opens Friday.