Sometimes, a book adapted into a film changes – parts are mixed up, good stuff is thrown out or it even becomes something entirely different, just trading on the original’s name. The Girl on the Train switches location entirely from the UK to the US, and yet nearly everything else from the book survives, even dialogue! This made it a good watch for someone who enjoyed the book – perhaps a better watch for someone who hasn’t – though while there are notable touches to differentiate it, on too many points it tries (and fails) to copy Gone Girl, to its detriment.
Rachel Watson (Emily Blunt) is an alcoholic who, while riding the train to and from New York City everyday, watches a couple from the train she believes are happily married. They live two doors down from her ex-husband Tom (Justin Theroux), his new wife Anna (Rebecca Ferguson) and their child, a family she pesters with calls, texts and visits. One day, Rachel witnesses the woman from the “happy” couple – Megan Hipwell (Hayley Bennett) with a man that isn’t her husband – Scott (Luke Evans) – and while drunk, Rachel gets off the train…promptly blacking out. Waking the next day, she discovers Megan is missing, and questions her role in her disappearance.
If you’ve not read the book, I would imagine some would dismiss it as “trash” – but it’s a good read, and tries to achieve Gone Girl’s confusion and mystery with a number of twists. As I said earlier, the film is nearly spot-on in adapting the book (both flaws and positives), other than the move to the US – which wasn’t much of an issue, even if it’s more believable a train would be delayed at the same point on a UK track every day! So any deficiencies to be found are really beholden to the novel, though writer Erin Cressida Wilson does a great job of condensing it into two hours while maintaining (and adding to) the interesting characterisation.
Each of the three main women is flawed, and the movie’s dividing of their perspectives into chapters helps slowly build the mystery (though this structure again harkens back to Gone Girl, which I’ll discuss more later). It’s a question of whether you think the book or story is trash or not, and that’s subjective – I saw the plot as a mystery to be solved, and its characterisation to be interesting in giving all three women rounded portrayals that subvert expectations, while others might consider it rubbish. That’s the beauty of opinions!
Wilson’s work, alongside director Tate Taylor, is built on by the performances, not the least Emily Blunt’s as Rachel. The British actress plays the character as British, already setting her apart, and gives Rachel a haunted, sunken and pitiful air with an undercurrent of rage. I think Blunt is a great actress, and she really sells this downtrodden, broken woman who can’t even trust herself or her memories, and seems afraid to do the right thing in case it might get her into more trouble. Her flaws neatly dovetail with those of the more complex Megan, played with vulnerable detail by Hayley Bennett, and a lot of scenes I had forgotten were brought strongly to life by Bennett – particularly the layers of mystery surrounding Megan, which are slowly pulled back. This is particularly true in the therapy scenes where she opens up, and we begin to feel conflicted about who she is and what she wants.
Rebecca Ferguson’s Anna, the third woman, felt a bit short-changed compared to my memory of her in the books, but the actress is able to do more in fewer scenes with less material to get across a steely exterior and slightly fracturing interior, particularly in scenes with Theroux, who seems to have transitioned from comedies to thrillers quite easily. He, Luke Evans and Edgar Ramirez (as the psychiatrist Kamal Abdic) play characters that in the book feel opposite to how they’re portrayed here, with Theroux’s Tom and Ramirez’ Abdic a little more sketched out, Evans’ Scott more archetypal than his flawed original in the book. Theroux and Evans are almost stereotypes to start, but as the plot develops (as with the women) your assumptions are upended, though Ramirez has little to do than look pensive. Among the smaller notable roles include Alison Janney’s no-nonsense cop and Lisa Kudrow’s plot-pivoting former friend, though the film revolves around the three main women and two men.
I need to say now though that as much as I enjoyed the movie for what it was – a very loyal adaptation – in order to discuss the direction, the music and more, the shadow of Gone Girl looms large. I felt Taylor’s direction, alongside the cinematography of Charlotte Bruus Christensen and Danny Elfman’s soundtrack, owe far, far too much to David Fincher, Jeff Cronenweth and Trent Reznor in the respective roles for the other movie. For a fan of that previous film, and a big fan of Trent Reznor, there was far too much similarity and far too many obvious parallels – a shame, as the three areas might have made it feel more of its own work, rather than a pale imitation. This can mostly be levelled at the lighting and the music, which almost seem like they were set up based on a brief stating “imitate Gone Girl as much as possible, with a few quirks to seem slightly different”. So Elfman’s electronic score is, at times, bizarrely out of place in a scene, while the grim, moody and dark blue lighting telegraphs the mood with no subtlety.
Taylor tries to offer something different with stuttery, slow-motion scenes, but they took me out of the film as opposed to making a scene more interesting. It’s a shame – a different visual and aural situation might have made it all something different, but instead make it more slavish to another, separate adaptation. Perhaps this is the point, as the book very much seemed to be a response to Gone Girl’s success, but it could be argued that keeping it in the UK might have given it that little bit extra. Overall I enjoyed Girl on the Train, Blunt’s performance in particular, and my only issues were that it failed to be different to a better movie and book, when it could have taken a fresh approach and distinguished itself.