Who hasn’t wondered about what happens in the houses we race by on trains? They back onto the tracks, undesirable as real estate but fertile canvases for our imagination, glimpses into other families and other lives, alternate planets of domestic possibility. Like Hitchcock’s “Rear Window” but seen on the fly.
“The Girl on the Train” takes this idea and runs in the wrong direction, with trashy, enjoyable results. Based on the best-selling novel by Paula Hawkins, Tate Taylor’s film falls almost too neatly into the “Gone Girl” genre of modern marital-suspense melodramas — films that used to be sneeringly called “women’s pictures” but often convey sharper, more uncomfortable truths about women’s inner lives.
The movie honors that heritage without tapping into its vein of craziness until almost too late in the game. You can imagine the trio of beleaguered heroines being played by Joan Crawford, Susan Hayward, and Ida Lupino, except that those classic-era dames would probably grow impatient with this movie’s self-important pace and break out the whiskey and the scissors.
Instead — and this isn’t a knock — we have Rebecca Ferguson, Haley Bennett, and the great Emily Blunt as (respectively) Good Girl, Bad Girl, and Seriously Effed-Up Girl. Or so it seems. The last is the one on the train, Rachel Watson, staring out the windows every time the commuter local passes 13 Becket Lane and its occupants.
Rachel’s obsessed with the unknown woman who lives there — the curvaceously named Megan Hipwell (Bennett, last seen in “The Magnificent Seven”) — and the perfect home life Megan seems to embody. Slowly we come to realize that two doors down live Rachel’s ex-husband, Tom (Justin Theroux), and his new wife, Anna (Ferguson, “Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation”), along with their baby. We learn that Rachel is a spurned spouse, a fantasist, a black-out drunk, and a stalker. A narrator unreliable even to herself, in other words.
But everybody in the film’s picturesque Westchester County appears to live right on the edge, not to mention right on the train tracks with a great view of the Hudson River — the movie’s a real estate Mobius Strip. Rachel’s self-destructive behavior gets worse, even as we drop into the happy lives of Anna and Tom and the more fraught existence of Megan, a hotsy-totsy with skeletons in her closet (or, more properly, her bathtub), a jealous hothead of a husband (Luke Evans), and a psychiatrist (Edgar Ramirez) who looks like he models for the men’s fashion supplement of The New York Times.
All good things.
Someone winds up dead — don’t look at me, I’m not telling — and because Rachel’s short-term memory has been short-circuited by all that vodka in her water bottle, it’s unclear whether she did or didn’t dunnit. For much of its running time, “The Girl on the Train” doesn’t care. It’s a lugubrious wallow in its heroine’s self-loathing, with Blunt going impressively gaunt and shaky and the camerawork (by Charlotte Bruus Christensen) coming in close and playing games with focal planes to keep us off-balance. Every so often Allison Janney wanders through as the detective on the case and sets the movie back on its feet.
The subtexts, true to the genre, are marriage and motherhood, and the anxieties and ambivalences and repressed rage surrounding each. Rachel wanted a child but couldn’t have one — although maybe she wants Anna’s — while Megan can have a child but doesn’t want one. The men are interchangeable, as they always are in melodrama; one of them has to be the cad but it almost (almost) doesn’t matter which. The women, their choices and mistakes, the emotional sidings they get shunted onto, are the dramatic grist of “The Girl on the Train.” It makes sense that Hawkins’s novel has been adapted by Erin Cressida Wilson, who penned the empathetic kink of “Secretary” (2002), among other provocations.
If only the movie had the courage to be as gonzo as it wants to be! “The Girl on the Train” keeps feinting toward the truly purple — those scenes that bounce back and forth between one month ago and two weeks from now and five days before yesterday!, those sultry therapy sessions and tortured inner monologues!, the gaslighting! — but it settles for the pale lavender until the home stretch, when the kitchen implements finally come out and unexpected bonds are forged over spurts of arterial blood.
All good things.
Even if it takes too long to let its hair down, “The Girl on the Train” deserves to be a minor guilty-pleasure hit, for its performances and hot-house plotting, and for its keeping of the compact of classic women’s films, where the heroine most wronged turns out to be most right. In fact, it’s said of one character, when they’re mopping things up at the end, “She was right about everything.” You won’t come closer to the secret heart of the genre than that.
The Girl on the Train
Directed by Tate Taylor. Written by Erin Cressida Wilson, based on the novel by Paula Hawkins. Starring Emily Blunt, Haley Bennett, Rebecca Ferguson, Justin Theroux, Luke Evans, Edgar Ramirez, Allison Janney. At Boston Common, Fenway, suburbs. 112 minutes. R (violence, sexual content, language, and nudity)
Ty Burr can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.