‘The Girl on the Train’ wobbles on the tracks, but is saved by Emily Blunt’s performance

DreamWorks Pictures/Courtesy
"The Girl on the Train" | Universal Studios
Grade: B

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A modern tale about marriage, affairs, lies and death. If that sounds like “Gone Girl,” it should. Director Tate Taylor’s “The Girl on the Train” touches on a lot of the same themes as David Fincher’s brilliant 2014 film. Does it do a better job? A resounding no. But that doesn’t mean that the film isn’t an intriguingly delicious, seductive and surprisingly moving film in its own way.

Adapted from the New York Times bestselling novel of the same name by author Paula Hawkins, “The Girl on the Train” follows Rachel (Emily Blunt), an alcoholic addicted to riding the train in the mornings and late afternoons for voyeuristic purposes. On the way, the train stops in front of the home of a couple (Haley Bennett and Luke Evans), strangers to Rachel. She imagines this couple as the perfect marriage, projecting onto them the love she once had with her ex-husband (Justin Theroux) — before his affair with the woman who is now his new wife (Rebecca Ferguson).

It doesn’t help her obsession that the couple is only two houses down from her ex, until one day when she sees the woman with another man. Furious that this woman could betray her husband like she was betrayed, Rachel exits at that stop for the first time. In her drunken stupor, though, she blacks out and wakes up to find out that the woman is missing. What did she do that night?

The main attraction of the film is Emily Blunt. Under a subtle physical transformation, Blunt’s performance, which may be mistaken as one-noted, is a heavyweight of various aspects of mental struggle. From encapsulating sanity-testing anger to nervous shame to utterly heartbreaking grief, Blunt is absolutely gripping, nailing moment after moment with the smallest of facial expressions and the most effective of cadences.

In fact, all of the women shine in “The Girl on the Train” — while the two men are rather poor. Rebecca Ferguson is solidly serviceable in a smaller role. Then, Haley Bennett takes on similar challenges as Blunt, showcasing her own range of emotions — from desperate seduction to dense emptiness to unfathomable grief.

The film wobbles on the tracks when it comes to its filmmaking and storytelling. On one hand, it takes incredible finesse to do justice to such a twisty story and Tate Taylor executes admirably. Utilizing a paranoid imagination of possible explanations to convey Rachel’s uncertainty around her actions, as well as crafty construction to constantly shift from deep sympathy for Rachel and scary suspicion of her, the film’s structure lives up to the finesse that was required.

But, on the other hand, there are more than a few choices that don’t quite check out. Taylor opts to depict many of Rachel’s black outs with not only shaky and choppy edits but also with shaky and choppy slow motion. Along with a bland color palette and cinematography that seems like it’s for another movie, some of the formal aspects of the film just do not fit with the storytelling.

Unfortunately, the big twist is not entirely earned. While the film, through its visual language, moves farther away from the twist’s predictability than the book can, the simplicity of it doesn’t sit well with what was building for the whole movie. Some of the action the twist creates is viciously delicious, pleasing the crowd’s thirst for revenge, but it doesn’t really add much to the overarching themes.

Fortunately, it doesn’t erase them either. Thanks to one of the most emotionally arresting performances of the year from Blunt, the film ends up resonating on an emotional level that “Gone Girl” never reached. As said before, it’s not as well made as that film, and most of its intentions hit a lower bar. But on top of its moments of twisted intrigue and mystery, “The Girl on the Train” ends up being a thoroughly affecting study of grief.

Kyle Kizu covers film. Contact him at [email protected]. Tweet him at @kyle_kizu.