One of the sad things about living in a culture that’s at least trying to be progressive is that you can’t just have classic bad gals anymore. In movies or in pop literature, if a woman character is nuts or scheming or both—let’s call her “difficult”—she has to have a good reason for being that way, preferably a psychotic, controlling man. This idea seems feminist on the surface, but it actually tilts toward a dangerous opposite: that somehow women, creatures of feeling more than rationality or intellect, aren’t wholly responsible for their behavior.
That’s the dynamic at work in The Girl on the Train, Tate Taylor’s earnest but ultimately droopy adaptation of Paula Hawkins’ novel, in which Rachel (Emily Blunt), a woman whose life has fallen apart, gazes with longing and more than a little jealousy into the lives of Megan (Haley Bennett), an apparent free spirit, and Anna (Rebecca Ferguson), a seemingly flawless wife and mommy who enjoys those dual roles a little too smugly. Rachel believes these women’s lives are perfect because she views them from afar: the train she rides into and out of the city each day passes their homes, allowing her to peer into these little dollhouse scenes in a blur of wistfulness and anger.
Rachel has a drinking problem, which only exacerbates her already roiling feelings. Plus, she has good reason to resent Anna, who is now living happily with suave, dutiful Tom (Justin Theroux), Rachel’s ex-husband. The two, plus their infant daughter, live in the very house that Rachel chose and furnished. As her train rolls by, she obsesses over it with a kind of helpless masochism. Then something terrible happens, and Rachel, having become used to drinking herself into blackout territory, has no idea what she might or might not have done. As she investigates, insinuating herself into Anna’s and Megan’s lives, details of those lives gradually slip into focus, for her and for us.
But The Girl on the Train is less a thriller than a morality tale reminding us never to make snap judgments. No matter how dreadfully some characters behave, we’re not allowed to dislike anyone for long. That kind of catharsis isn’t allowed. Yet Blunt’s Rachel, her face puffy and splotchy from too much drinking, makes the movie watchable—she’s its most nuanced and sympathetic character. It’s wrenching to watch her nurse her resentment as she stares from the window of that train: quaffing her secret vodka from an adult sippy cup, she’s so sozzled she’s practically pickling her soul in self-loathing.
Blunt gives Rachel multiple dimensions—we could never view her as just a stewy mess. But the movie’s surprise (or perhaps not-so-surprising) twist doesn’t serve its lead character well, at best merely justifying her stalkerish behavior. The revenge she ultimately wreaks is supposed to be grim and sweet, but it comes off more as a plot calculation than something you feel in your gut. For a supposedly dark thriller, The Girl on the Train is just so damn reasonable. Rachel, drunk and sad and fiercely jealous, is allowed to be just a little bit bad. But not nearly bad enough.