Paula Hawkins’ debut novel, “The Girl on the Train,” is a story told through multiple points of view that takes on the malleable, fallible nature of memory through the tale of an alcoholic divorcee attempting to solve a crime through her own boozy blackouts. In this mystery, Hawkins deftly illustrates how a single point of view might contain one truth, but it is never really the whole truth.
In the film adaption, Emily Blunt plays Rachel, a broken, sad woman who rides the commuter train to and from New York City each day, dressed in a suit for a job she no longer has, sipping vodka from her water bottle and sometimes guzzling it from a martini glass. Her daily pleasures are glimpses of the houses that slip by her window and the lives within. One house contains her ex-husband, Tom (Justin Theroux), his new wife, Anna (Rebecca Ferguson), and their new baby; in the house next door, a sexy young couple, Megan (Haley Bennett) and Scott (Luke Evans), flaunt their passion.
One day, Rachel spots the female half of the couple with another man on her porch. Her envy and longing transform into a knowing rage. Triggered by the betrayal, Rachel goes on a bender. She wakes up to a bloody head wound, the foggy memory of a quarrel with Tom, and a detective (Allison Janney) informing her about the disappearance of Megan, and what was she doing in the area that night?
Screenwriter Erin Cressida Wilson and director Tate Taylor have ably wrestled the book to the screen, maintaining Hawkins’ disparate voices, spread among the memories, inner monologues and subjectivities of three women — Rachel, Anna and Megan. The perspectives of each character are distinct and discrete to each woman’s understanding of the events, demonstrating the way in which the truth can be blinkered to fit a unique reality.
Wilson brings themes that are latent in the book to the surface in the film, exposes them to the harsh light to make them visually, cinematically real. This necessarily sacrifices some nuance, though we remain rooted in Rachel’s faulty and unreliable subjectivity. Taylor brings a sense of icy removal to the visual style, evoking fall in Westchester County, and the silos of isolation and belief in which these three women exist. During confessional moments, Taylor utilizes woozy close-ups that bring an intimacy that’s almost too close, unclear if we’re on the verge of a confrontation or a kiss.
Blunt is excellent as Rachel, a shell of person drenched in vodka and self-loathing. But she can also be quite awkwardly funny, in her bumbling efforts to suss out her own memory, to isolate it from her drunken fantasies. Her voice modulates between a self-effacing whisper and a drunken, heavy slur. Janney is fantastic as a salty police detective who doesn’t buy a thing that Rachel is selling, and Bennett leans full tilt into the role of the coquettish sex kitten hiding a dark past and struggling with her own issues of addiction and deflection.
In “The Girl on the Train,” memory proves to be an elusive, fleeting entity, something that can be gained and lost in equal measure. The perspectives intersect but the realities veer wildly apart based on what people are told and what they want to believe — thereby indicting the fragility of belief itself.
The Girl on the Train
☆☆☆ 1/2 out of 5
Cast: Emily Blunt, Justin Theroux, Luke Evans, Haley Bennett, Allison Janney, Lisa Kudrow, Rebecca Ferguson.
Director: Tate Taylor.
Running time: 1:52.
Rated: R, for violence, sexual content, language and nudity.