An hour into The Girl on the Train, I’d been ready to leave approximately three times. I’d had enough of the twists and labored moroseness. I’d seen a better version of this movie two years ago to the day: Gone Girl. That hit thriller, starring Ben Affleck and Rosamund Pike, is a thoughtful, well executed movie. The Girl on the Train functions mostly as a supercut of every Lifetime flick I stayed up late to watch as a child — a series of exclamation points punctuated by moody interludes.
Rachel (Emily Blunt) is a commuter whose life is tangled up with the lives of Megan (Haley Bennett) and Anna (Rebecca Ferguson). Rachel is the girl on the train, and Megan is the one Rachel watches as it rattles by. What Rachel can’t see from her perch is that Megan works as a nanny for Anna, who is married to Rachel’s ex-husband, Tom. It’s hard to map out and taxing to follow, until everyone’s real connection becomes apparent: No one likes Rachel, and not even Rachel really likes Rachel. She’s plagued by alcoholism, spends her days riding the train aimlessly until it gets dark out and she goes back to her cave, crashing in a friend’s spare room. She’s not only riding the train past Megan’s house, but her old one, too — to watch the couple she’s obsessed with. Rachel contonually reminds herself of the life she lost when Tom left her for Anna. The elephant in the room throughout all of this is The Girl on the Train's twisted sister, Gone Girl. Their similarities are clear, and Girl on the Train tries its best to turn the David Fincher movie’s intrigue upside down. In effect, all of Gone Girl’s really clever elements are flipped and presented with a little more heavy-handed suspense. Because, after all, we have some idea of how this movie will end. The Girl on the Train is similar to Gone Girl, but its real burden is its insistence on forcing some sense of unpredictability. Both of these psychological thrillers deal with the tensions inherent in their suburban settings. But while Gone Girl smashes voyeurism into the American Dream, The Girl on the Train feels like someone has shoved a True Detective-style storyline into a house on a suburban street. The mundanity of nice, clean suburbs, it reports, can force people into doing some pretty terrible things. Netflix’s Amanda Knox documentary — itself imperfect — has more believable plot kinks.
Even though Girl on the Train functions as a Gone Girl spin-off — wherein the first movie’s main characters are reimagined in a slightly more bizarre situation — it misses the most essential element. Putting an interesting female character like Amy Dunne at the center of a murder plot is enough. But Girl on the Train has too many women, all with too little personality. Megan and Anna and Rachel all move — ghostlike — through their homes, like they’re haunting lives they were talked into (in Megan’s case) or talked out of (in Anna and Rachel’s). When the movie is not juggling these three flat characters, it’s planting cliffhangers and false suspense in the form of two attractive, athletic husbands. Because both lack Ben Affleck’s magnetism and his deep sense of brokenness (that honestly extends beyond his character and bleeds into his real life), they don't resonate, either.
Maybe the creatives behind this movie haven't spent the same amount of time as I have watching truly ridiculous Lifetime dramas. There’s an awkward age gap for tween TV watchers, between the mindset of having outgrown Disney, being uninterested in anything on MTV post-Cribs, and not feeling ready to turn on SNL and catch onto all of the subtle jokes. That’s when I watched Lifetime. The plots were contrived — they always seemed to involve something about identify theft, a controlling boyfriend, a crazed neighbor, or a lurking ex — but the dullness didn’t matter. These were psychological thrillers that were deeply concerned about women, and interested in watching them escape whatever lackluster narrative arc they happened to be trapped in. Who lives, who dies, and who did it are all questions of little consequence. Gone Girl understands that. Its biggest capper — that Amazing Amy isn’t really dead, but rather had orchestrated her own disappearance — is revealed halfway through because the marriage at the story’s center is compelling enough to sustain the rest of the film. Because The Girl on the Train has less to work with, it busies itself with plot twists that don’t do much to sell its intensity.