The famed film critic Gene Siskel once said that “a good movie is never too long,” meaning if a film tells an enjoyable story, it will never FEEL long and will take as much time as is needed to tell that story in an entertaining manner. I don’t recall ever hearing of him saying the opposite, that a bad movie can be too short, but if there was ever a case for a movie needing to be longer, The Girl on the Train is it.
At 112 minutes, The Girl on the Train could have easily stood to be stretched out for another fifteen minutes or so in order to give us some sense of perspective on these characters. We’re presented a story of three women, all of whom must have reasons for the way they are and the things they do, and we’re given very capable and interesting actresses to inhabit those roles, yet an hour and fifty minutes later, I’m still wanting to know WHY these characters are the ways they are.
Rachel (Emily Blunt) is a woman whose husband Tom (Justin Theroux) has left her for placid, icy Anna (Rebecca Ferguson). We quickly see that Rachel has a drinking problem, the reason for which is glossed over as being due to fertility problems, I guess. Apparently unemployed, she drinks vodka out of a water bottle all day and rides the Metro-North train to New York City and back, past her old house, and spots Megan, the woman who lives next door (Haley Bennett), and becomes obsessed with her supposedly perfect life. One night, Rachel drunkenly stumbles off the train and blacks out. When she wakes up, she’s covered in blood, has no idea what happened, and finds out Megan has disappeared. The rest of the movie is a piecing together of what happened that night.
As Rachel, Blunt is the one assigned the task of carrying the movie, and if she’s really too beautiful to ever be taken seriously as a hopeless drunk, she at least commits to portraying an ugly type of alcoholism, stumbling around with a flushed face, chapped lips and smudged makeup, and waking up at one point in a sticky, ambiguous mess of blood and embarrassment. By contrast, Bennett’s Megan is a pitiful stereotype of a Femme-Fatale-With-Secret-Pain. “I tend to smile when I’m nervous… sometimes I laugh,” she tells her male therapist, who of course is captivated by all the lip-biting and skirt-hiking going on. The third focal character is Anna (Rebecca Ferguson), after having “stolen” Tom from Rachel, is now fully invested in being a two-dimensional platitude of a stay-at-home mother, fatigued by hours of farmer’s market shopping and sweet potato pureeing for her oh-so-adorable baby.
The movie’s time-jumping structure is interesting, and gave me a sense that there could’ve been a way to reveal things about these people’s motivations to make us more invested in them, but director Tate Taylor (having previously made The Help and Get on Up) is too busy awkwardly lumbering from plot point to plot point to give them any time to breathe. The result is the worst of both worlds: characters kept at a distance, hurtling through a story we don’t buy, with an ending you can see coming by the end of the second act. We never learn enough about any of them to understand why they are the way they are, and as such, we’re forced to accept them as almost-caricatures - the Misunderstood Drunk, the Lost Millennial, the Self-Absorbed First-Time Mother, etc., etc.
Without any deeper understanding of why these people are the ways they are, then exploring what they do comes across as just soap opera, or a made-for-Lifetime Thursday night movie. That was disappointing, as the potential for a very absorbing look into the three central characters is apparent on screen. Alas, all Tate Taylor gives us is something that may have aspired to be more like Gone Girl or The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, but ended up being something akin to a slightly-more serious episode of "Absolutely Fabulous."