In the interest of full disclosure, I didn’t read Paula Hawkins’ best-selling novel “The Girl on the Train.”
Yes, yes, I hear your gasps. I know: Shame on me.
But honestly, I’m glad, because the story makes for a fascinating movie. If I had known what was going to happen, I think I would have missed out on a great time at the old movie house.
Emily Blunt plays Rachel, who spends her days on a commuter train, where she concocts a fantasy life for a woman she glimpses briefly as she travels to and from the city.
Except that’s not at all what’s happening.
Rachel is actually stalking her ex and his new wife, who live two doors down from the fantasy woman. See, the train is passing along the backyard fence line of her old neighborhood.
But that’s not the full story, either. Rachel is an alcoholic, regularly submerging the pain of her ruined marriage in copious amounts of cheap vodka. Sometimes she gets so blasted she stumbles her way through the old suburb and blacks out. Or so police say when the woman she has been watching goes missing.
Thankfully, we don’t have to rely only on Rachel’s boozy recollections. We also learn what happened through the eyes of the missing Megan (Haley Bennett of “Magnificent Seven”) and Anna (Rebecca Ferguson), the new wife of Rachel’s ex.
Multiple perspectives, unreliable narrators, hazy memories — this all could have been baffling. In fact, director Tate Taylor used a similar nonlinear approach to much less success in his 2014 James Brown biopic, “Get On Up.” Despite great performances, that movie was a narrative muddle.
But here, Taylor (who also directed 2012 best picture nominee “The Help”) deftly layers time, truth and perception into a psycho-sexual thriller that would belong in the same class as “Fatal Attraction” and “Basic Instinct,” except the characters in “Girl” are deeper and less cartoony.
All three women are in the throes of grief, rendered inert by their complete powerlessness. Rachel yearns for what never was. Anna is kept awake at night by a new baby and thoughts of the ex stalking her family. And Megan is suffering her own mental anguish from events that followed the death of a sibling years ago.
All define themselves by the men in their lives, but rather than simple middle-class ennui, the characters are so hampered by their circumstances that the mere pursuit of happiness seems utter folly. Taylor emphasizes their despair by focusing intently on his performers’ faces, letting his actresses go to work.
And work they do. Especially Blunt, who is magnificent here. Her Rachel is on the verge of psychological collapse, but because the camera holds on her for so long, she has to get that point across with a trembling chin here or the simple widening of one eye there.
In one scene, as she lets Megan’s distraught husband into her apartment, Blunt shifts her focus from him to an indistinct middle distance as she shuts the door. A simple change in her eye level tells us she has no idea what terrible thing will happen next. Brilliant.
“The Girl on the Train” isn’t perfect. We could have spent more time with Anna, and neither Megan’s husband (Luke Evans) nor Rachel’s ex (Justin Theroux) inspires much empathy (especially among the novel’s overwhelmingly female fan base). And the violence-averse will need to turn away at the film’s brutal final moments.
But fabulous performances and a multilayered narrative tighten the screws into a mysterious and ultimately satisfying thriller.
As you wander out from the theater and into the night, “The Girl on the Train” will have you questioning not only the motives in your own relationships but your memories as well.
‘The Girl on the Train’
Rated R. Time: 1:52.
Where are we?
The novel “The Girl on the Train” had alcoholic Rachel peering woozily into other people’s backyards from a commuter train running through suburban London. But to appeal to the larger American audience, the movie puts her on the Metro-North rail line riding from Westchester County to Manhattan.
Author Paula Hawkins told the New York Times she’s totally fine with the change. “What I say to everyone is, ‘There’s no such thing as a 100 percent faithful adaptation of a book to screen,’ ” Hawkins said, adding that early on, when it came to selling the film rights, agents asked her, “ ‘Would you have a massive problem if the location was moved?’ I said, No, because what’s important really is the train, not what exists on the outside.”
At the same time, London-born Emily Blunt retains her English accent as Rachel.
“It seemed like a cool wink and a nod to the true location of the novel,” director Tate Taylor told the Los Angeles Times, “and then also how great would it be to add to her isolation and loneliness if she’s this Brit all alone that couldn’t be further from where she’s from, in a crappy apartment with a judgey roommate. So keeping the accent just heightened her situation.”
Sharon Hoffmann, firstname.lastname@example.org