Tate Taylor’s The Girl on the Train takes the audience on a bizarre trip. The Emily Blunt thriller doesn’t seem certain of its own destination. Buying a ticket feels like boarding a Scrambler at the county fair and, once upside-down and 20 feet in the air, realizing there’s no one at the controls.
Blunt plays Rachel, a commuter who fixates on one minute of her day: the 30 seconds her train chugs past a two-story house at 15 Beckett Road on its way to Manhattan, and the 30 seconds she soaks it in on her way home to her roommate, Cathy (Laura Prepon). Thanks to movie logic, those seconds stretch on endlessly — some days, the train even seems to brake in front of the house so Rachel can get a long look at homeowner Megan (Haley Bennett) in a bra and boxers tossing her blonde hair like she’s in a Clairol commercial, or making out with hunky husband Scott (Luke Evans). “She’s everything I want to be,” swoons Rachel, who imagines she’s a painter, a job that seems too dazzling for a catalogue model–looking rando who, to us, just looks like a basic wifey.
But that’s the point. Rachel’s Megan is whoever Rachel imagines her to be. She doesn’t even know her name is Megan. That comes later. Yet while Rachel’s staring at her, we’re staring at Rachel and making our best guesses about her life. The routine implies she’s stable. The tasteful clothes imply an office job. The refillable water bottle implies she’s healthy and eco-conscious. We make the same snap judgments we make about strangers every day. And as soon as we’ve settled her in our minds as the strait-laced heroine, Taylor swats our noses. Rachel’s not stable; she’s obsessive. She hasn’t worked in a year. That water bottle? Vodka. The camera gets closer to Rachel’s face to show what we’ve missed: her skin is unhealthy, her makeup is smudged, and when she tries to say hi to a mother in the next seat, the steady British accent we’ve heard in her voice-over comes out slurred. The mother switches seats. We’re stuck in ours.
At least our perspective changes. The Girl on the Train leaves Rachel and leaps to Megan, who hates her life in this posh small town in suburban Westchester. “It’s a fucking baby factory,” she groans, and when the lithe babe enters yoga class, her jealous neighbors shoot her dirty looks. Megan’s in therapy, which is mostly an excuse to hit on her psychologist (Edgar Ramírez). He asks where she’d rather be in life and she stares out his window at the passing train. (Trains stalk the characters like serial killers.) She doesn’t say a word, but the answer is clear: anywhere but here.
Then the film hops two doors down from her home to the even unluckier 13 Beckett Road, where our third character, stay-at-home mother Anna (Rebecca Ferguson, the badass brunette of Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation, now convincingly fragile), employs Megan as a nanny. The house numbers don’t make sense and neither does the setup. Why is one rich wife wiping up after another? Before we get the answer, Megan quits and the two women flog each other with insults from the comments section of cafemom.com. “Mothers need to work,” snipes Megan, rolling her eyes at Anna’s devotion to farmers’ markets and organic sweet potato purees. Anna straightens her spine. “There’s no job more important than raising a child,” she counters. She sounds like she’s lying.
Taylor and screenwriter Erin Cressida Wilson are circling a major truth: Women are raised to compare themselves to others. Why is she prettier, skinnier, happier, more loved? Yet even after a lifetime of practice, their vision is blurred — especially when they look in the mirror. The trouble is, the film doesn’t seem to see women clearly, either. Every female here is ruled by her womb: what man is allowed inside and what might pop out nine months later. When they fuck in the woods, these yuppies look as primal as chimpanzees who would murder each other’s infants for a reproductive advantage.
But just as we’ve settled into a social-problem film about projection, The Girl on the Train jumps tracks. One of the ladies goes missing, another wakes up covered in blood, and suddenly this gray-toned drama becomes a librarian stage-whispering that she isn’t wearing panties. We’re meant to get caught up in the whodunit, but the film never lets us get close enough to play detective. Instead, Taylor fuzzes the details until his big final reveal, but I’d long since stopped trying to answer that question in favor of figuring out whether the movie was goofy or offensive.
Though we’re invited into Rachel, Megan, and Anna’s heads, the script doesn’t trust anything they say. They get louder, but that just adds to the confusion. The men in their lives, including Anna’s husband Tom (Justin Theroux) don’t bother figuring them out as long they’re getting laid. Watching Megan with her carved cheekbones tromp through town in snakeskin boots and a snakeskin blazer feels like witnessing a modern-day Eve. She and Anna will both get blamed for whatever goes wrong, the way women with their magical bellies always have been when things go mysteriously bad.
Taylor’s last film, the underrated James Brown biopic Get on Up, was as bold as this movie is greige. Brown, too, was a tangle of personalities. He was a victim and a bully, a genius and a fool. Taylor solved that conflict by believing in everything, even Brown’s lies, and that cartoon felt more true than if he’d tried to get it exactly right. People don’t fit in boxes, unless, like Rachel imagining Megan’s marriage, we shove them into the box we’ve made and cover our ears to their screams. But here he’s just asking us to debate whether these women are nutso or helpless, when neither seems correct.
If The Girl on the Train were fun, this could work. It’d make great camp. Blunt and Ferguson both went toe-to-toe with Tom Cruise — I’d love to see them trade slaps. Taylor’s biggest hit, The Help, proved he can get laughs even while scolding Civil Rights–era segregation. The Girl on the Train also has the bones of a high-strung noir, the Rebecca of Rye Brook with Bennett swanning around her suburban McMansion. But the film is polite when it should be wicked — it’s melodrama that thinks it’s saving lives, like it drank too much chardonnay and convinced itself that since Gone Girl almost got an Oscar, maybe it can, too. That tonal muck prevents the film from going in any direction. Or, as Rachel’s roommate groans, “A ticket to nowhere? That’s really fucking crazy.”