Trains are easily one of the Top Ten Movie Symbols, with both opening and closing shots of a train chugging along as shorthand for adventure, progress, journeys. Trains are great places, at least according to Hollywood, to have sex after you’ve just tanked your interview to your first choice college (“Risky Business”) or glimpse other lives that may or may not intersect with yours. Such is the case in “The Girl on the Train,” based on the novel by Paula Hawkins, in which an alcoholic and badly bruised from her divorced woman (Emily Blunt) takes the train to Manhattan each day, but not exactly to work. No, she does so in order to window gaze and dream about a woman (Haley Bennett), whom she sees regularly outside her house. Solving a movie mystery based on a book that you haven’t read is like doing a puzzle without looking at the picture on the box top, but it’s clear from the start that Emily is not exactly a model of mental health, obsessing about the woman and her husband’s (Luke Evans) lives, even sketching them. We soon learn that she has recently divorced her own husband (Justin Theroux), who is now married to Anna (Rebecca Ferguson). There is also a therapist (Edgar Ramirez) who may or may not be tied to the crime that occurs later. Oh, and the movie/novel constantly moves around in time, so there’s that to figure into the equation, too.
Rebecca has (seemingly) everything Emily has lost, including a baby girl. Her nanny just happens to be Haley. One day, Emily sees something distressing and goes to confront Haley. The next thing she knows, a detective (Allison Janney) is visiting her and insisting that she has something to do with the disappearance of Haley. Because Emily is prone to blackouts (though she’s trying to quit drinking), and also has lied about keeping her former job, she’s pretty much the model of the Girl Who Cried Wolf, and so she remains under suspicion, as she struggles to piece together what actually happened. And to load the dice, Emily has been stalking her ex-husband and his wife, even going so far as to enter the house and hold their baby. The movie takes place in late fall and early winter (also highly symbolic), and all the yards are covered in leaves. No one apparently has time to rake or blow the leaves away, and so each shot of their yards reflects the characters’ mental states – cluttered with fears, secrets and anxiety. When Emily finally manages to confront the perpetrator, it’s as gory a scene as the climax of “Gone Girl,” but the sun finally emerges and stays out.
I would recommend reading the actual book, if you must see this, because I’m going to assume the characters are far more fully fleshed out there. Here, Emily does a valiant job of trying to breathe life into her character, and for the most part, she succeeds (though why she has a British accent when her character is presumably from NY, I have no idea). The other actors are less successful, though perhaps that is due to factors beyond their control. All three main female characters exhibit what shrinks call “flat affect,” which does not help when you are trying to develop your role. Compared to “Gone Girl,” this is a Diet Coke of a mystery, though it may be worth catching on DVD.