The Girl on the Train
Directed by Tate Taylor
Opens October 7
There’s a stereotype of sorts about actors-turned-directors loving and overemphasizing close-ups in their films, as remnants from their days in front of the camera, when close-ups were premium acting real estate. You won’t find an exception in actor-turned-director Tate Taylor; his movie version of the bestselling novel The Girl on the Train goes close on his actors’ faces constantly, with the kind of attention to detail that often subs for attention to anything else in the shot. Yet in this particular case, the movie is more or less made in its close-ups. The story is lathered-up airport-novel soap, but there’s feeling in two of the actors’ faces: Emily Blunt, her eyes sad and wobbly, and Haley Bennett, looking both steely and faraway when one close-up finds her on an exercise machine. In both cases, shallow focus keeps the rest of the world out from their private thoughts.
The Girl on the Train book, unread by me, was largely sold as a successor to Gone Girl. It follows that the movie version plays like an ante-upping sequel, offering a girl who is gone as in missing (Megan, played by Bennett) and a girl who is gone as in blasted out of her drunken mind (Rachel, played by Blunt): Gone Girls. Rachel wants to find Megan because she’s not sure of her role, if any, in her disappearance. See, Rachel knows Megan not really because they used to be neighbors, but because she watches Megan and her perfect-looking husband (Luke Evans, scraggling up the definition of perfect-looking) from her Metro North train every day. They live a few doors down from Rachel’s ex-husband Tom (Justin Theroux), his new wife Anna (Rebecca Ferguson), and their baby daughter.
Rachel used to ride the train to her job in Manhattan, but her divorce and drinking has left her days flirting with vagrancy, riding the rails back and forth with a vodka-filled water bottle. Prone to blackouts and moments of seething rage toward Tom and Anna, Rachel wonders if some of her lost time might be connected to Megan’s whereabouts. Apparently the book version of Rachel is not described as bearing a particularly strong resemblance to glamorous movie star Emily Blunt, but Blunt gives it her all, pickling herself in regret. She looks at times, more like a zombie than you might have thought possible, and effectively turns that look into a manifestation of her soul-sickness. Bennett, meanwhile, has her own pre-missing point-of-view sections—an awkward fit for a movie that seems like it should be steeped in Rachel’s subjectivity (and, again, smacks of the more elegantly POV-hopping Gone Girl), but also an opportunity for Bennett to do affecting work as a woman not sure how or where to channel her determination.
This material seems perfect for a distinctive amateur-sleuth movie, with Rachel falling apart as she “investigates” the case and, by extension, herself. Instead, Taylor strings it out into a series of confessionals and confrontations; even the cop played by Allison Janney doesn’t seem that interested in the nuts and bolts detective work. Men glower at each other, women eye each other suspiciously, and every ten minutes or so there’s a glimpse of tasteful nudity so constant that it’s maybe not so tasteful after all. Plenty of the movie inspires disbelief, none moreso than the idea that Metro North trains slow down long enough for long, lingering, daily looks at people inside of a house at a couple hundred yards away from the tracks (if they had broken down in front of the house every day, then maybe).
What gives the trashiness a mild kick is the movie’s observation of how women are so often victim-blamed and pitted against each other. Of course, just as much of the plot focuses on how babymaking is crazymaking, but Blunt and Bennett, by giving the movie more than it really deserves, almost makes it seem worthy of them, as well as the cast of 90s TV stars reporting for character-actor duty: Janney, Lisa Kudrow, and Laura Prepon. Plus, the milieu makes sense: People will be half-watching this movie on trains for years to come.