It sounds twisted to put it this way, but a major reason we go to the movies (film noirs, gangster dramas, adulterous romantic thrillers) is to live out vicarious fantasies of taboo behavior. The plot of a movie matters (sort of), but in another way it’s just an excuse. Sitting there in the dark, gazing up at the screen, we want to be that clandestine lover, that danger junkie, that grandiose addict-victim, that seeker of crimes of passion. “The Girl on the Train,” an adaptation of Paula Hawkins’ prismatic but heavy-breathing 2015 bestseller, is at heart a murder mystery, yet in many ways that’s the film’s most routine aspect. The director, Tate Taylor (“The Help”), stages it as a series of voluptuous vignettes in which three women, who all reside in the idyllically posh and leafy New York suburb of Ardsley-on-Hudson, lay bare their forbidden yearnings and secret inner lives. As a big-screen thriller, “The Girl on a Train” is just so-so, but taken as 112 minutes of upscale psychodramatic confessional bad-behavior porn, it generates a voyeuristic zing that’s sure to carry audiences along.
The title character, Rachel Watson (Emily Blunt), is a complete wreck — and from the start, that’s one of the fantasies that’s being played out. (You will know what it is to hit rock bottom!) When we meet her, she’s riding the train back from Grand Central Terminal in Manhattan, fixating on a woman she doesn’t even know — Megan Hipwell (Haley Bennett), an elegant cornfed blonde standing on the second-floor balcony of her splendid rustic home, just across the train tracks, looking like the woman who has it all. Rachel is the woman who lost it all. She was married to Tom (Justin Theroux), a protective shark, and they were in the middle of launching the perfect suburban existence, but she couldn’t get pregnant, and that’s when the drinking started. In flashback, the movie shows us tantrums, rages, blackouts, all of which have delivered Rachel to the identity she occupies now: an isolated divorcée, sitting on the train guzzling cheap vodka out of her designer water bottle. She’s a pretty far-gone alcoholic, and Blunt, in a perilously effective performance, plays her with a cold, slack woe that makes it look as if her facial features are slowly coming apart.
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Rachel has no idea that Megan, the object of her identification, has any connection to her. But oh, are they connected! Everyone in “The Girl on the Train” is connected, to the point that the movie has a turbulently incestuous small-town-soap-opera quality. Think “Peyton Place” as staged by the Adrian Lyne of “Fatal Attraction.” It may be intentional that the characters even kind of look alike. Megan, a former fixture on the art-gallery scene, with an untamed wild streak (and therefore bored as hell as a trophy wife in the ‘burbs), has been working as a nanny for Anna (Rebecca Ferguson), who has the same angelic locks and confectionary skin tone. It’s part of the film’s deadpan if not quite satirical vision that they seem to belong to the same tribe of postfeminist Stepford princesses.
Anna is the woman who stole Rachel’s husband (she’s living the life Rachel wanted to), and it has driven Rachel cuckoo with self-hatred. Blunt’s performance is a masochistic revel, but she’s such a tender and lyrical actress that she makes even Rachel’s lowball actions sympathetic. We can’t help but root for her, even when she seems to be a drunken destroyer with borderline personality disorder. At one point, she stands in a bathroom, smearing the mirror with lipstick, letting out the rage she feels at her ex-, and it’s a cathartic moment.
Taylor did a superb job of directing “The Help,” using his sympathetic identification with the women on screen to save it from being just another racial message movie, and here, working from a script by the kink-friendly Erin Cressida Wilson (“Secretary”), and utilizing the radiant close-up cinematography of Charlotte Bruus Christensen, he shows a similar impulse. “The Girl on the Train” is sexy, brutal, diary-of-a-mad-housewife trash made with a distinctive creamy classy empathy. When Megan announces that she has landed a gallery job and needs to quit her nanny position that day, leaving Anna and her baby in the lurch, the two of them get into a tense exchange about the hidden perils of being a stay-at-home mom, and this has to be the first contempo noir that features a deep-dish dialogue about that. It’s a scene that resets the stakes.
“The Girl on the Train” is grounded in the tranquil house-beautiful fetishism of the Hudson Valley suburbs, to the point that you sometimes feel you’re watching “Pottery Barn Catalogue: The Movie.” For a while, though, we seem to be trapped in a spin on “Fatal Attraction” in which the aggrieved feminine stalker is the heroine. How badly does Rachel act? She sneaks into her tastefully exquisite former home, where Tom and Anna now live (it’s the paradise she was kicked out of), and coddles their infant in the backyard, pretending it’s the child she couldn’t have. She drinks like a homeless derelict, inviting the stares of passengers on the train. And, in fact, she nearly is homeless: She’s been crashing for two years on a spare bed offered by a friend, and the reason she joins the commuter horde traveling into Manhattan each morning has nothing to do with the PR job she once held. Everything snaps when she oversees the mysterious Megan kissing a stranger, betraying her husband. Just like Rachel was betrayed! Shortly after that, she returns late at night, only now she’s a mess, her hair and clothing caked with blood and mud. On that very night, Megan goes missing. Rachel, of course, has blacked out what happened, but she’s haunted by an image of herself approaching Megan, raising a weapon…
As a novel, “The Girl on the Train” is told by a series of unreliable narrators, and that’s part of its post-“Gone Girl” fragmentary anomie. It’s a structural gambit that carries a whiff of ideology, a sense of women being forced to live divided and tattered lives. In the movie, the unreliability factor plays differently. It comes down to this: We’re shown a bunch of stuff, and we therefore believe it, but the stuff we’re shown may not, in fact, have happened. It’s not all that different from what the book did, yet somehow, in a movie, it comes off as more of a cheat. The audience feels like it’s been played. From what’s presented, it appears highly possible that Rachel is guilty of murder, but that’s partly because the local cops, led by a detective played by the always acerbically sharp and appealing Allison Janney, seem better at random hunches than they are at forensics.
Blunt, who plays half her scenes looking like she’s holding back tears (or maybe screams), is a luminous actress who’s been in need of a role that allows her to get past her slight decorousness, and this is that role. It should, at last, elevate her star. “The Girl on the Train” gets less convincing as it goes along — the climax, which features a man, two women, and a kitchen utensil, is borderline camp — yet the movie has just enough intrigue, and has been made with enough craft, to disguise (for a while) the late-night cable-thriller mechanics it ultimately succumbs to. It delivers a sense of hidden dark lives, which is why it should have no trouble connecting at the box office. Put in demographic terms, a movie like this one fills an essential niche for women moviegoers, and they will likely revel in every sneaky, lurid moment of it. But that same audience should also realize that it ultimately deserves better than decently executed female-gaze victimization pulp.