It’s not unusual to be left with questions after watching a psychological thriller, it’s not even that unusual to leave with the question ‘…why?’ on your lips as you file out of the cinema, but when the main question is the same one you had going in, namely ‘why did they set this British book in the US?’ then there’s a little bit of a problem. The Girl on the Train is preposterous but highly enjoyable. The geographical migration doesn’t harm the story in any way, and in fact barely even affects it at all, which once again begs the question of ‘why?’, especially considering the fact that Emily Blunt plays the titular girl, retaining her natural accent. While watching, it’s hard not to be seduced by the film’s sweeping views of the Hudson and loving shots of New York’s suburban houses that look more like mansions than starter homes for young couples. But leaving aside the Hollywood economics of being able to afford such houses on a single income (possibly the most preposterous aspect of the film to be honest), it’s impossible not to think about the creeping, voyeuristic claustrophobia that has been lost by not setting the film in the terraced houses that line the tracks leading to Euston in Hawkins’ novel.
Blunt’s performance as perma-drunk Rachel anchors the film in a tentative reality that acts as a much needed counter to the narratives of young wife Megan (Haley Bennett), and new mum Anna (Rebecca Ferguson). All three women are connected not just by the train, but by motherhood, whether it’s longed for, lost, or brand spanking new. Rachel, who has been pretending to commute into the city for a year despite being fired and drinks straight vodka from a reusable water bottle, was unable to get pregnant with husband Tom (Justin Theroux) and started drinking heavily as a way to deal with this loss. Tom, we learn, did not think much of his wife’s drinking and rather than help her get the help she so desperately needed started sleeping with the real estate agent instead, leaving his wife once Anna got pregnant. Each woman gets their own separate narrative in the film, just as in the novel, but with Blunt’s performance so crucial to the success of the film, scenes in which she is missing tend to take a turn for the histrionic.
Bennett is promising as bored wife Megan, however, and although she’s a character you can’t help feeling you’ve met a thousand times before, Bennett manages to convey the cracks beneath the veneer astutely. Megan acts as the visual antonym to Rachel at first; she’s the girl Rachel watches longingly from the train as she fruitlessly travels in and out of Grand Central Station. Rachel watches as Megan cuddles up to husband Scott (Luke Evans) by an autumnal bonfire, as they have sex on the balcony of their bedroom in broad daylight (another of the film’s most preposterous propositions: no one else on the train seems to notice), and then as she kisses another man on the very same balcony. When Megan is reported missing, it’s this last image which stays with Rachel even as she struggles to remember where she was and what she was doing that very same night. Because of course, all these women are connected by even more than just motherhood and a train; Rachel used to live two doors down from Megan in the house that is now home to ex-husband Tom, second wife Anna and new baby Evie.
Rachel, as we have guessed from her drinking and longing glances outside train windows, has been unable to move on from her failed marriage, and has continually kept in touch with Tom even as he has asked her not to. In flashbacks we see a drunken Rachel enter her old home and remove the sleeping Evie from next to her sleeping mother, walking out into the wintry garden with the baby clutched to her chest. Anna believes Rachel to be stalking her and her family; Tom gets multiple calls from an unknown number and this, she believes must be Rachel. This, combined with Rachel being seen in the area on the night Megan goes missing, and her alcohol fuelled blackout which means she can’t remember anything from that night, makes her a clear suspect to both Anna and Detective Riley (Allison Janney, for whom the question of whether or not she deserves more screen time in anything she is in is always, always yes) in the case of the missing Megan Hipwell.
Rachel’s lost memories and her alcoholism make her a very obviously unreliable narrator to both the audience and Detective Riley, and Blunt makes it very difficult to watch the slow, painful unravelling of both her character and the truth behind what happened to Megan. Hawkins’ portrayal of Rachel has been described as a triumphantly ‘unlikable’ female character, but that doesn’t seem to be what’s happening here; Rachel isn’t inherently unlikable, she’s just lost. And when the twist comes, because of course there is one, we are rewarded with a wonderful piece of poetic justice, but it can’t save the film from what is ultimately a rushed and unearned climax that rings a little hollow.