From the moment she swept into “The Devil Wears Prada” wearing a bolero jacket and a withering sneer, the remarkable British actress Emily Blunt has made it clear that toughness becomes her. Since then she’s often dispensed with the designer fashions (and the sneer), but the toughness has only deepened, taking on richer shadings and emotional colorations.
It’s no surprise that she’s proved such a natural in the thriller genre: In her best recent movies, “Sicario” and “Edge of Tomorrow,” she played a woman cast into a labyrinth of treacherous secrets, forced to draw on her keen intelligence and physical acuity to fight her way out.
“The Girl on the Train,” a woozily inept suburban potboiler adapted from Paula Hawkins’ bestselling mystery novel, would love nothing more than to join that short list. And as Rachel Watson, a New York divorcee sinking into an alcoholic rage, Blunt certainly gives her showiest, most feverishly committed performance to date. Sipping vodka out of a water bottle and scribbling ominous sketches in her notebook, she stumbles through the movie looking strung-out and sleep-deprived — sometimes streaked with blood, invariably reeking of booze.
Her British accent the only surviving hint of the novel’s London setting, Rachel spends her days riding the Metro-North commuter train along the Hudson, which affords a perfect if fleeting view of the Westchester County home she once shared with her former husband, Tom (Justin Theroux). He now lives there with his new wife, a pretty blond named Anna (Rebecca Ferguson), and their baby daughter — the product of an affair that began while Tom and Rachel were still married.
Rachel lives for these painful glimpses of the catalog-perfect marital bliss that has been wrenched away from her, and she regards Anna with undisguised hatred and jealousy. But her envious gaze also drifts toward another blond in the neighborhood, Megan (Haley Bennett), who inhabits her own vision of domestic harmony with her husband, Scott (Luke Evans).
What Rachel doesn’t learn until later is that Megan works as a nanny for Anna’s daughter, completing a psychological triangle whose tidy self-containment comes perilously close to self-involvement.
Often considered the first action film, Edwin S. Porter’s silent short featured some startling stuntwork on a train, and this famous final shot.(Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences)
Star-director Buster Keaton rode in, on and under a Confederate train in the silent classic.(Handout Photo )
In Alfred Hitchcock’s “The Lady Vanishes,” starring Michael Redgrave, the disappearance of an elderly train passenger kicks off a larger mystery.(File Photo )
Hitchcock returned to locomotives in this classic thriller in which two train passengers discuss swapping murder victims. Farley Granger and Laura Elliott starred, along with Robert Walker and Ruth Roman.(Warner Bros.)
Burt Lancaster, right, with Michel Simon, starred in John Frankenheimer’s breathless World War II thriller.(File photo)
Train travel figures heavily in David Lean’s epic about the Russian Revolution, starring Omar Sharif and Julie Christie.(Ullstein Bild via Getty Images)
Sergio Leone’s western epic wasn’t about a mere train ride -- it was about the birth of the American rail system that altered the Wild, Wild West in myriad ways. Charles Bronson, left, and Henry Fonda were among the legendary cast.(Handout)
Based on Agatha Christie’s classic novel, this mystery starred, from left, Martin Balsam, Albert Finney and George Coulouris, as well as Sean Connery, Lauren Bacall and Ingrid Bergman, who won a supporting actress Oscar for her work in the film.(Handout )
As the title suggests, trains were just one mode of transportation used to frustrating effect by unlikely travel partners John Candy, left, and Steve Martin in John Hughes’ heartfelt comedy.(Paramount Pictures)
After teaming for the hit “White Men Can’t Jump,” Wesley Snipes, left, and Woody Harrelson played cops–turned-train–robbers in “Money Train.”(STF / Fox)
After fighting terrorists on a naval ship in 1992’s “Under Siege,” Steven Seagal returned to face more baddies -- this time on a train -- in this sequel.(Joel David Warren )
A motion-captured Tom Hanks led Robert Zemeckis' animated holiday film, in which a little boy re-discovers his faith in Christmas after taking a magical train ride to the North Pole.(Warner Bros. Pictures)
Wes Anderson chose a train traversing India as the setting for this drama-comedy about three brothers re-connecting. Jason Schwartzman and Amara Karan starred alongside Owen Wilson and Adrien Brody.(James Hamilton / Fox Searchlight Pictures)
Based on a Clive Barker story, this horror film follows an amateur photographer (Bradley Cooper) on the trail of a serial killer known as “the Subway Butcher.”(Saeed Adyani / Lionsgate)
On an epic train journey from Beijing to Moscow, a U.S. couple, played by Emily Mortimer, pictured, and Woody Harrelson, find themselves drawn into the center of an international incident.(Jose Haro / First Look)
John Travolta takes a trainful of people hostage in this remake of “The Taking of Pelham One Two Three.” The 1974 original starred Walter Matthau and Robert Shaw.(Stephen Vaughan / Columbia Pictures)
When a runaway train threatens a highly populated area, only Denzel Washington, left, and Chris Pine can stop it.(Robert Zuckerman / 20th Century Fox)
With a massive, constantly moving bullet train acting as a metaphor for classism in society, Bong Joon-ho’s dystopic thriller features Chris Evans, Tilda Swinton, Ed Harris and Jamie Bell, pictured.(Radius-TWC )
Emily Blunt stars in director Tate Taylor’s adaptation of the bestselling novel about an unstable woman who witnesses something from the window of her commuter train, throwing her reality into question.(Barry Wetcher / Universal Pictures)
As in the book, these various connections — of which none of the characters has more than partial knowledge — are unfolded through an intricate array of shifting perspectives and fractured timelines, designed to obscure as much as they reveal. But if Hawkins juggled these narrative strands with a dexterity that helped obscure the material’s thinness and lack of texture, the screenplay by Erin Cressida Wilson (“Secretary,” “Men, Women & Children”) leaps from one strand to another with none of the same finesse.
We spend some time getting to know Anna, whose smug delight in her situation turns to apprehension as she and Tom are flooded with text messages, phone calls and other apparent manifestations of Rachel’s obsessive behavior. Meanwhile, Megan, whose own troubled past comes to light in a few jarring flashbacks, nurses her wounds through a series of extramarital flings, including one with her conveniently studly therapist (Edgar Ramírez).
At the center of it all is Rachel, whose regular blackouts and hallucinations further smother the narrative in a thick haze of liquor and self-pity. When one character turns up missing, Rachel sets out, like Nancy Drew on a bender, to discover the awful truth, pushing her stalker-like tendencies into overdrive and triggering the suspicions of an investigating detective (a sharp Allison Janney).
With its themes of voyeurism and duplicity, its railway intrigue and its matching golden-haired vixens, “The Girl on the Train” is the kind of movie that often gets labeled Hitchcockian, never mind that the director, Tate Taylor, shows no particular mastery of suspense. Hawkins’ novel drew similarly unflattering “Gone Girl” comparisons when it was published last year, though both Gillian Flynn’s book and David Fincher’s razor-sharp movie adaptation possessed a surgically precise wit — a willingness to merge the preposterous and the satirical — that neither version of “The Girl on the Train” is equipped to match.
Rather than fully embracing the story’s undeniable trash appeal, this unaccountably serious-minded movie seems to have taken Rachel’s thumbnail — she is, objectively speaking, a confused, ranting, drunken mess — and attempted to spin it into an aesthetic conceit. Attempting to capture this woman’s perennially sozzled state in visual terms, Taylor lets the camera wobble to and fro, punctuates the story with jarring cuts to black, and resorts to slow-motion with amateurish abandon.
There are numerous ways for a film to convey radical subjectivity, substance abuse and memory loss without sacrificing narrative lucidity. (Examples as different as the “Bourne” thrillers, Christopher Nolan’s “Memento” and David Cronenberg’s “Spider” spring to mind.) But the incoherence of “The Girl on a Train” runs deeper than its visual sloppiness.
The movie lurches sweatily from one plot point to the next — coughing up a few stale red herrings one minute, taking a bleary-eyed stroll down memory lane the next, and delivering its grisly closing revelations with all the grace of a vagrant squatting to relieve herself on a subway platform.
All in all, it’s a bizarre change of pace for Taylor, who toyed around with chronology to much more stimulating effect in “Get On Up,” his underappreciated biopic of James Brown. The director remains best known for “The Help,” and if there’s a faint connection between that sentimental civil rights drama and this noirish psychothriller, it’s in the way both films strive — with varying degrees of success — for a complex, prismatic sense of female identity.
The other two women in “The Girl on the Train” can be interpreted as parallel emanations of Rachel’s rattled psyche; for all their differences, they’re all grappling with, and in some way rebelling against, the same crushing expectations of happy monogamy and motherhood. That’s the most generous explanation I can muster, anyway, for why Anna and Megan feel like cipher-like projections rather than actual characters, despite Ferguson’s and Bennett’s best efforts to breathe life into their tortured veins.
“What is it with you crazy women?” a man utters late in the proceedings, and as much as the film might seek to counter the misogyny of that insult, it can’t help but feel like a product of the same deep bewilderment. The empathy that Taylor summoned so effortlessly in his previous films feels strained and unpersuasive here, and moments that should be lacerating — more than one of them centered on the loss of a child — are overplayed to ghastly effect.
It doesn’t help that Blunt has been subjected to the sort of half-hearted movie-star deglam job that’s meant to signify seriousness in beauty-obsessed Hollywood. Yet her performance has its affecting moments nonetheless, straining and sometimes succeeding in turning all those flailing, dipsomaniacal mannerisms into genuine revelations of character. At every moment, you can’t wait to see what she’ll do next, by which I mean after this movie has ended.
‘The Girl on the Train’
MPAA rating: R, for violence, sexual content, language and nudity
Running time: 1 hour, 52 minutes
Playing: In general release