‘The Girl on the Train:’ Wake me up when things get interesting

by Sebastian Wurzrainer | 11/8/16 12:00am

Five minutes. That’s how long it took for “The Girl on the Train” to completely bore me. Thirty minutes. That’s about how long it took for me to guess the twist ending for “The Girl on the Train.” Though for the sake of transparency, I should clarify. I had actually guessed the twist within the first few minutes, but at about the 30-minute mark I changed my mind and this second guess turned out to be correct. Incidentally, my initial guess would have made for a far more interesting film. “The Girl on the Train” probably isn’t the worst film I’ve seen all year, but thus far it’s certainly the best example of wasted potential.

Based on the widely popular novel by Paula Hawkins, “The Girl on the Train” follows the interconnected lives of three women: Rachel (Emily Blunt), Megan (Haley Bennett) and Anna (Rebecca Ferguson). Rachel is a recently divorced alcoholic whose ex-husband Tom (Justin Theroux) is now married to Anna, with whom he had an affair. Megan babysits Anna and Tom’s newborn and is in an abusive relationship with her husband, Scott (Luke Evans). Eventually Megan goes missing, and the police think that Rachel knows something. Sadly, she blacked out and can’t remember a thing. What a shame.

Like I said, the film actually has a lot of potential, as the premise is extremely intriguing. It raises a number of interesting questions about the problem with living your life through other people and the trustworthiness of narrators, and if it had taken the time to explore those questions, it could have been fascinating. I actually feel a little bad for being so hard on this film because it does contain a number of praiseworthy elements. If “The Help” proved anything it is that director Tate Taylor has a talent for bringing the best out of his actors. Blunt is a fantastic actor, and in the film she steals every scene she is in. Few actors have the natural ability to make such a wretched human being so sympathetic. Theroux also does outstanding work, though his character is regrettably sidelined for the first two-thirds of the film. Both Bennet and Ferguson have a few solid scenes, but for the most part they come across as rather uninvested in their characters.

The real problem with “The Girl on the Train” is its execution. Many reviewers have compared the film to David Fincher’s “Gone Girl,” and the more I thought about it, the more I couldn’t help but see the similarities. The problem is that the story never has the guts to go all out in the way “Gone Girl” did. That film is so filled with twists, turns and shocks that I was always on the edge of my seat; with “The Girl on the Train” a few scenes kept me mildly interested, while most left me droopy eyed. One scene in particular really exemplifies why Fincher’s film worked and Taylor’s didn’t: Scott realizes that Rachel has been lying to him all along and shows up at her apartment to assault her for her deceit. It seems to me that this scene was intended to capture the perverse intensity of “Gone Girl,” but it ultimately has no bearing on the plot. Instead, it feels like an unpleasant and unnecessary diversion. The nonlinear storytelling technique means you only realize the irrelevance of that scene and many others in the final 15 minutes. Overall, the audience is left unsure of where in the film’s timeline each scene takes place. The nonlinear screenplay only serves to reveal the final twist at the optimal moment. Speaking of that twist, it isn’t bad so much as it is conventional. It reduces a story which had the potential for real psychological complexity to a fairly simple murder mystery.

While I may not have enjoyed “The Girl on the Train,” I can easily see understand the popularity of the book. If the filmmakers had made something more along the lines of Christopher Nolan’s “Memento,” contemplatively exploring themes of identity and memory, this film might have been something special. But thanks, probably, to studio mandates, the film instead tries to be dark and edgy a la “Gone Girl.” But because its story simply isn’t conducive to that approach, “The Girl on the Train” pales in comparison to both of those great films, leaving it to slink into cinema’s corner of obscurity.

Rating: 3/10