'The Girl on the Train' Review: Emily Blunt Helps Prove Sometimes the Movie Can Be Better Than the Book

by John Boone 8:05 AM PDT, October 07, 2016
Photo: Universal Pictures

Readers love -- like, loooove -- saying, "The movie is never as good as the book." The Girl on the Train, adapted from Paula Hawkins' New York Times-bestselling behemoth that broke records and sold millions upon millions of copies, faced that non-enviable challenge two times over, as it also followed on the much-lauded heels of that other movie about a missing Girl.

The film's poster, black and white with a slash of red train down the center, boasts that it is "Based on the Thriller That Shocked the World." The titular girl on the titular train is in fact very much a woman, the "barren, divorced, soon-to-be-homeless alcoholic" Rachel (played by Emily Blunt in the film), who witnesses a crime during her daily commute into the city -- at least, she thinks she does. Rachel is sucking down vodka from a water bottle half the time, so it's hard to tell.

I read the thriller but remained unshook. There was a point fairly early on in the book when I took a stab in the dark and guessed, "Oh, so-and-so did it. And this person did that, etcetera etcetera." As I read the last word on the last page, I was most shocked that I had been right. (It didn't help that I read The Girl on the Train right after Liane Moriarty's superior Big Little Lies, which contains a plot twist I couldn't untangle until it was screaming in my face.)

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Still, Girl on the Train is the reason we even bother to keep movie-fying books -- because sometimes the movie is better. (Also, because people don't read.) No, the film doesn't prove as slick or thought-provoking as David Fincher's Gone Girl, but it does outdo its own literary counterpart, in large part thanks to Blunt, who is as perfectly cast here as she is in every movie she's in and a handful of movies she isn't in but should be. One scene in particular, a deeply unsettling moment in the train station bathroom when Rachel's slight drunken slur gives way to a terrifyingly intense diatribe, will surely be clipped for Blunt's Golden Globe package next year.

Spoilers ahead for the ending of The Girl on the Train.

As for the twists of the novel, some can't be hidden onscreen -- most glaringly, the Dr. Abdic of it all -- and they aren't. Others, like the Tom (Justin Theroux) of it all, prove as predictable as they did in print. Screenwriter Erin Cressida Wilson and director Tate Taylor (The Help) attempt to shroud Tom, Rachel's ex-husband who was carrying on an affair with the missing woman, Megan (Haley Bennet, Hollywood's next obsession and for good reason), in secrecy as best and as long as possible, until Lisa Kudrow's made-for-the-movie character tells Rachel -- and the viewer -- "He's such a bad guy." But long before that, when a third man in Megan's life is brought up, you realize there's only one other man in the picture that it could be. (Tom.) Or maybe it's not that obvious! It's hard to be objective when you know what's going to happen.

Either way, Tom being the killer never felt like The Girl on the Train's shocking reveal, it felt like an inevitable unfolding of events. Taylor seems to understand this, too. In the 112-minute runtime, the director teases out the mystery with a twisted sense of pleasure, using bits of memory and false memories spliced into the narrative to leave the audience as disoriented as Rachel is as she scrambles to piece together the puzzle. He doesn't hold back waiting for the big reveal, but mines every opportunity available to create scenes that reach their most sexy or gruesome or depraved potential. In the end, he transforms the film into something of a soap opera, entertaining because of its ridiculousness, not in spite of it. When everything comes to a bloody climax, it's well worth the wait.

With that approach, the movie "Based on the Thriller That Shocked the World" is certain to have even some readers shook. One scene involving Megan and her confession about what happened to her in the woods caused the man next to me to audibly gasp, "Oh, God." Even knowing what was going to happen, I found myself thinking the same thing -- oh, GOD! -- as I watched it play out onscreen, so much more satisfyingly than it did on the page.