THE ADAPTATION GETS FULL MARKS FOR TRYING BUT CAN’T MANAGE BEING MUCH MORE THAN MEDIOCRE
Director: Tate Taylor
Starring: Emily Blunt, Haley Bennett, Rebecca Ferguson, Justin Theroux, Luke Evans, Edgar Ramirez, Laura Pepon, Allison Janney and Lisa Kudrow
Studio: Universal Pictures
Running Time: 1 Hr, 52 Mins
The book is always better.
That’s a common refrain when reviewing movies adapted from books, especially bestsellers. It isn’t always the case mind you. Gone Girl was a movie I thoroughly enjoyed but I really couldn’t get into the book. I liked Elmore Leonard’s Get Shorty but I loved the movie (the dialogue alone should have gotten an Oscar). But the rule is that the more freedom and flexibility an author is afforded with a book permits them to craft a superior story than a movie can. Even the best effort and intent can fall painfully short. And that’s the fate of Girl on the Train, adapted from Paula Hawkin’s bestselling thriller.
It tries really hard, and while you can see it flirt with its potential, it’s mediocre at best.
Girl on the Train is essentially the story of three women whose lives are woven together by tragedy and geography. First and foremost is Rachel (Emily Blunt), an alcoholic whose marriage dissolved after the revelation that she was barren. She’s emotionally shattered and remains obsessed with her ex-husband Tom (Justin Theroux), whose now happily married to Anna (Rebecca Ferguson) and the two have a beautiful baby girl together (Tom and Anna carried on a torrid affair while Tom was still married to Rachel). The final member of the trio is Megan (Haley Bennett), a woman trapped in the tedium of a small town life and a marriage she’s checked out of (a fact her husband-played by Luke Evans-is oblivious to).
When Megan goes missing, and Rachel may or may not have witnessed it or been involved (she was experiencing one of her alcohol induced blackouts), everyone’s lives come crashing together and begin unraveling at the same time. Toss Megan’s therapist and possible lover (Edgar Ramirez) into the volatile mix and everything begins to spiral dangerously out of control. Secrets are revealed, dark pasts are forced to light and fragile webs of deception and betrayal are both woven and destroyed. And no one escapes suspicion when Megan’s murdered body is discovered.
Girl on the Train suffers from two primary flaws; the first is it’s pacing. Unlike books, movies don’t have the luxury of slowly building the tension, allowing the suspense to wind up tight while characters are introduced and developed. It isn’t impossible to pull off as movies like Gone Girl prove, but it is a skill that eludes Girl on the Train director Tate Taylor. The plot meanders quietly from scene to scene, using flashbacks (sometimes clumsily) to narrate a larger story. But quite often the film gets bogged down in its slow execution and it feels a lot longer than its 112 minutes. Long stretches feel boring.
The second is the characters. None of them are really likeable. Rachel for instance, is an emotional wreck who stumbles from one drunken blackout to the next. When she isn’t wandering around in a stupor or wrestling with a hangover, she’s making really, really bad decisions. Every lie she tells and every effort she makes to try and make things better (which inevitably backfire) make it harder to empathize with her. Even when it looks like she may be getting manipulated, it’s tough to root for her. While you may be hoping her manipulators get theirs, you can’t help but pin a little bit of blame to her because she went out of her way to put herself in that spot. Megan is a damaged woman who seeks validation through sexual attention. She’s dismissive, cold and also prone to habitual lying. While both women have pasts that explain their flaws and challenges, it’s still difficult to stay in their corner.
The movie’s male characters range from being violently possessive to insatiable libidos on legs. None of the characters have to be perfect mind you, but few if any possess any redeemable qualities. This hurts the themes of redemption that the movie tries to embed into its foundation.
Try as she might, Blunt can’t elevate Rachel above a hapless, emotionally ruined victim bound to her past. It’s odd seeing Bennett playing a sexually promiscuous valley girl after her strong turn in last month’s Magnificent Seven and even weirder seeing Ferguson playing a kept but eventually suspicious house wife after she was throwing bodies around in last year’s Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation. After the three female leads, there are really no performances of note.
It isn’t like Girl doesn’t try to do justice to its source material, but it seems it just can’t. Great suspense stories have been adapted to the big screen in the past, it just seems that not enough syncs for Girl on the Train to be one of them. It’s greatest flaw is that you can see the reveal a mile away-even if you haven’t read the book-a hallmark of failure for any suspense movie. In the end the story may be a victim of the book’s success. So while it gets a solid A for effort, it has to settle for a C for execution. Because in this case, the book is probably better.