Review Roundup: The Girl on the Train Is No Gone Girl

Justin Theroux in Girl on the Train. Photo: Barry Wetcher/Universal PIctures

Paula Hawkins’s 2015 suspenseful page-turner, The Girl on the Train, will forever be judged against Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl. Both riffed on the inner workings of a titular “Girl,” and utilized unreliable narrators to shine a spotlight on the darker, seedier aspects of human nature. So it makes sense that Tate Taylor’s adaptation of the novel would weather some comparisons to David Fincher’s Oscar-nominated blockbuster. Unfortunately for Taylor, the comparison does not favor Train, with some likening his psychological thriller to that of a poorly conceived Lifetime movie. Although Emily Blunt has received near unanimous applause for her turn as an alcoholic with blackout-induced amnesia, Taylor and screenwriter Erin Cressida Wilson haven’t fared as well. Many critics have pilloried the film’s uneven tone, poor character development, and its disappointing attempt at a twist ending. Here’s a roundup of what critics have been saying:

“I respect the screenwriter, Erin Cressida Wilson, for taking a shot at replicating the novel’s three perspectives with handy inter-titles. But that doesn’t work very well onscreen, where point of view can be passed more fluidly, and Taylor seems hobbled. He doesn’t smooth the transitions out and make the women’s inner lives seem connected. He just clunks along randomly, and Rachel’s emerging memories — done in arty, flickering slow-motion — confuse instead of clarifying the action. Taylor does what no one has ever done: make you tired of looking at Blunt. Even though pathetically drunk leading ladies are relatively rare in movies (the best was Jane Fonda in The Morning After, a mystery-thriller that also fell apart), the novelty wears off.” —David Edelstein, Vulture

“Blunt, who plays half her scenes looking like she’s holding back tears (or maybe screams), is a luminous actress who’s been in need of a role that allows her to get past her slight decorousness, and this is that role. It should, at last, elevate her star. The Girl on the Train gets less convincing as it goes along — the climax, which features a man, two women, and a kitchen utensil, is borderline camp — yet the movie has just enough intrigue, and has been made with enough craft, to disguise (for a while) the late-night cable-thriller mechanics it ultimately succumbs to. It delivers a sense of hidden dark lives, which is why it should have no trouble connecting at the box office. Put in demographic terms, a movie like this one fills an essential niche for women moviegoers, and they will likely revel in every sneaky, lurid moment of it. But that same audience should also realize that it ultimately deserves better than decently executed female-gaze victimization pulp.”—Owen Gleiberman, Variety

“A morose, grim and intensely one-dimensional thriller about an alcoholic’s struggle to make sense of a close-to-home murder as well as her own mind, this major fall release from Universal can count on a panting public to pack multiplexes upon its Oct. 7 opening. But this train may hit a yellow commercial light sooner than expected down the line. Distinguished only by a quite extraordinary musical score by Danny Elfman, working in an entirely uncharacteristic mode, and some adventurous camerawork from DP Charlotte Bruus Christensen, the film is very faithful to the book both structurally and in dramatic incident. The changes lie elsewhere: The setting has been shifted from greater London to the New York City suburbs, the milieu is much more upscale than in the book, and the title character in the film is both more physically attractive and less ironic than on the page.” —Todd McCarthy, The Hollywood Reporter

“While Blunt and others do their mighty best to keep The Girl on the Train as high-brow and psychologically savvy as possible (Bennett and Ferguson are both strong on this front), by its climax, the film has become a glossy version of a 1990s TV-movie thriller. Which isn’t exactly an insult—indeed, I would love it if the 2014 dual successes of Gone Girl and No Good Deed led to a full rebirth of the slick, sorta trashy domestic thrillers of the 1990s. It’s just that The Girl on the Train—which could be content to be merely grim entertainment—is trying to be something more, with something to say. It’s not, and all that wasted effort gives off a bad smell.”—Richard Lawson, Vanity Fair

“No spoilers here, though the movie gives away the game faster than the novel. It helps loads to bask in the dark shadows of Charlotte Bruus Christensen’s cinematography and the haunting cadences of Danny Elfman’s score. The Girl on the Train lacks the bitter humor and stylish verve that director David Fincher infused into the film of Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl. What it wisely maintains from the novel are three unreliable narrators – Rachel, Anna and Megan, women who have a hard time being honest with us and themselves. Annoying? Not to me. I found the device, and the secret of what unites these hard-luck ladies, to be just the femcentric fuel to raise Girl to the level of spellbinder.”—Peter Travers, Rolling Stone

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.”—Stephanie Zacharek, Time

“This hottest of literary properties lands with a lukewarm splat on the movie screen: a guessable contrivance with a biggish plothole. Lieutenant Columbo could have sorted it in five minutes. The complicated web of narrator-switches, flashbacks and POV-shifts seems clotted and Emily Blunt – usually so witty and stylish – is landed with a whingy, relentlessly weepy role in which her nose hardly ever resumes its natural colour.”—Peter Bradshaw, The Guardian

“Director Tate Taylor (The Help) doesn’t bring the kind of stylistic dazzle that David Fincher, his fellow helmer in literary It Girl depravity, lavished on Dragon Tattoo and Gone Girl. But he deftly translates the bleak, raw-boned menace and tricky time signatures of Train’s intertwined plotlines, and draws remarkably vivid performances from his cast, particularly his two female leads. Blunt and Bennett aren’t girls at all; they’re women on the edge of their own oblivion, wounded and furious and chillingly real”—Leah Greenblatt, Entertainment Weekly

“For a movie built on the voyeuristic pull of lives lived in full view of strangers, and the secrets people hide in plain sight, The Girl on the Train is anything but the kind of elegantly skeevy pulp made disreputably fun by a DePalma or Verhoeven, or the twisted psychodrama that calls to mind Hitchcock or Haneke. Instead, the overall mood created by the crummy, pinched visuals and logic-strained rhythm is of something scanned and discarded, like a tabloid article or a Lifetime movie. Taylor is woefully incapable of unfolding the three-pronged, back-and-forth-in-time narrative with any coherence or artfulness, leaving the movie to feel like a gossipy yarn told by someone way too impatient to get to the good stuff: ‘Oh, then this happened, but wait, there was this thing last year, and, okay, where was I? Right, you won’t believe this part!’”—Robert Abele, The Wrap

“Imagine if Gone Girl had been developed as a toothless network television pilot — if it had been stripped of its subversive approach to gender dynamics, bludgeoned free of its sadistic gallows humor and shot like a very special episode of ‘NCIS: Suburbia.’ Imagine if it hadn’t been directed by a filmmaker who’s drawn to trash the way that most people are to perfume, someone who genuinely believes you can learn as much about marriage and misogyny from the novels sold at an airport bookstore as you can from those taught in a college classroom. Imagine instead that it had been directed by the guy who made The Help.”—David Ehrlich, IndieWire

“It’s as if the movie itself wakes up hungover 20 minutes in and spends the next hour and change reconstructing the events of the night in question piece by fragmentary piece, accounting for missing time and establishing connective tissue between seemingly unrelated moments and memories. That’s an all-too-common means of slowly teasing out key story information in mysteries, but at least form matches content here. This doesn’t prevent The Girl on the Train from running head-on into an equally common problem among movies whose first 90 minutes are so clearly in service of a Shocking Reveal: All the setup can feel moot rather than tension-building. I’ll say nothing about the twist lest I release the kraken-like wrath of spoiler-averse readers, but ultimately the specific revelation is of less importance than the fact that, in Tate’s film, the destination proves as familiar as the journey.”—Michael Nordine, The Village Voice

Girl on the Train Review Roundup: No Gone Girl