When my editor and I were discussing the best way to cover The Girl on the Train, the new Emily Blunt thriller based on the Paula Hawkins novel of the same name, the idea of doing a stunt journalism piece came up. What if I talked about Girl on the Train to—wait for it—girls on the train?
The headline would be funny, we agreed, but there was some risk involved. What if no girls on the train had seen Girl on the Train? What if they had, and so were suspicious of strange women approaching them on public transportation? We went back and forth about how this could possibly work before she suggested, "You could maybe stalk a movie theater, wait for a showing to let out, and then sort of… follow some girls onto the subway."
That's how I came to be idling outside a Brooklyn movie theater around 9:30, about to engage in the weirdest Thursday night plans of my life. The showing I had just left was one of the earliest available for the movie, which debuted this weekend, and I was a little antsy about how many people would actually show up for it. But the theater was pretty packed. Although it was mostly couples, I figured I could easily find a group of girlfriends to follow (in a friendly way!) after it let out.
I zeroed in on a trio of young women eagerly discussing finer points from the book that didn't make it into the movie. As I walked behind them, I realized they weren't heading towards any nearby subway stop, and I was probably merrily marching towards one of their apartments. So I doubled back and found a couple I recognized from the theater. After two blocks, they stopped at a fruit stand. This was very leisurely produce shopping, and it didn't take long for me to worry I was missing out on some potential interviews further up the block. I sped ahead towards the actual subway stops, where I couldn't find a single soul talking about the movie or its many, many shortcomings.
The Girl on the Train, like the Paula Hawkins novel it's based on, concerns Rachel (Emily Blunt), an alcoholic divorcée who rides the commuter train every morning into the city to drink and cover up her job loss to her roommate. Rachel is unhealthily invested in a "perfect couple," Scott and Megan (Luke Evans and Haley Bennett), who live along her train route, right near her ex-husband, Tom (Justin Theroux), and his new wife, Anna (Rebecca Ferguson). When one half of that perfect couple goes missing, Rachel involves herself in the police investigation. But due to her instability and frequent blackouts, the police soon suspect her.
That's all the makings of a solid thriller, but for such a sensational plot, Girl on the Train is surprisingly dull. The movie is shot in a color palette so drab that it's almost jarring when Rachel walks under the bright lights of Grand Central Oyster Bar for her daily martinis. And just about every actor involved seems like they'd rather be sitting down for a root canal.
The one exception is Blunt, a reliably fantastic performer who, in a better world, would've scored an Oscar nod for last year's Sicario. Blunt does her best to make Rachel compelling, complicated, and sympathetic. But she's an actual character dropped into a movie full of flat one-noters. There's Anna, the smug homewrecker who seemingly revels in reminding Rachel what she's lost. Then there's Megan, the dissatisfied housewife who, in Rachel's mind, doesn't appreciate what she has. In the book, both women start out as half-realized cartoons who say more about Rachel's mental state than anything else, but as Hawkins's text unfolds, they reveal surprising depths and past trauma. That barely happens in this movie. The only character who really evolves is Tom, the put-upon man caught in the middle of a web of adultery, lies, and murder.
Friday afternoon, I decided to blindly seek out more girls on the train. On an uptown N , I spied a mother with her infant daughter sitting by another woman gripping the railing above. I asked them both if they'd seen or read Girl on the Train. Turns out no. The mom has seen an ad for the movie, though. Also, her baby is really cute.
Girl on the Train is fascinated with motherhood and the various ways its three leading ladies do not meet its expectations. (Some spoilers ahead.) Rachel is infertile. Anna prides herself on her devotion to her daughter, but she exposes her to danger every single day with her choice of partner. Megan dies with a baby in her womb—and, as a much-teased flashback reveals, she accidentally drowned a child in her teenage years as well.
Yet Girl on the Train misses a chance to actually say something about motherhood and the absurd pressure women face to parent flawlessly. Children are mostly just an easy answer for why Rachel drinks, why she hates Anna, and why Megan was unhappy in her marriage. If you're being a little more cynical with your reading (and I am), you could infer that the women in the film are punished for their maternal failures. After all, if Megan had simply given in to her husband's desperate desire for a kid earlier on, her entanglement with Tom—and grisly end—never would've happened.
My continued asks on the subway that Friday turned up nothing. But I have another train—an Amtrak, this time—to catch that evening. I make my boyfriend switch seats with me so I can lean over to interrupt a fashionable middle-aged woman staring at her phone. She hasn't read or seen Girl on the Train, either. But she wants to! She wishes me good luck. I hope I can pull off scarves like she does when I'm older.
Just about every actor involved seems like they'd rather be sitting down for a root canal.
I'm a big believer that movies should be allowed to divert from their book sources, and can't stand when people roast excellent adaptations for axing minor characters and pointless scenes. But Girl on the Train is an especially bad translation. The first bizarre choice is the much-touted location change. It absolutely didn't have to be moved from the London (the book's setting) to New York (the film's setting). In an interview, screenwriter Erin Cressida Wilson claimed that the American backdrop was partly intended to bring extra shame to Rachel's character, which seems more indicative of her lazy writing than Britain's drinking culture. Wilson's timeline is also stitched together with random title cards likely to confuse anyone who didn't know the story going in. Although it's unfair that everyone keeps comparing Girl on the Train to Gone Girl—two mysteries that both happen to have "girl" in the title—it must be said that the latter found a smart, dynamic way to make its split narratives and heavy use of interior monologue cinematic. Girl on the Train doesn't bother.
On the Amtrak again, I make my way to the dining car, hoping to find some hungry travelers to harass. A woman with a thick paperback copy of Inferno sits down across from me. Clearly, she likes bestselling mysteries that were turned into movies in fall 2016, so by that metric she has to love Girl on the Train. Except she doesn't—she just saw it in a bookstore once. She feels super bad about it, though, and insists on chatting with me. What's my job, where'd I go to school, do I have siblings? She's retiring from her job in healthcare on December 30 and is super excited about it. She's also just coming back home to New Jersey after visiting her daughter in Virginia. She has three grandkids. The youngest one likes to threaten his siblings with his toy screwdriver. She is my favorite person I've talked to about Girl on the Train and I hope she enjoys the hell out of retirement.
When I arrive back in New York, it's debate night, but I skip that stress headache to hit up another movie theater for another go at stalking. I've looked up the listings for Girl on the Train and timed it just so I'm waiting outside a Regal theater in Astoria when a showing ends. As the audience streams out, I hear a 20-something woman say, "But in the book, Rachel went to the hospital," and I promptly fall in line behind her and her two equally chatty girlfriends.
After a few blocks, the trio prepares to splinter. Deciding I should go for the pair rather than follow one solo girl, I pause and check my phone as they say their goodbyes. The pair continues on and so do I, but it doesn't last long. After a few minutes, they pause to call an Uber. After a black sedan drives off with my last shot at successful stalking (for journalism!), I walk home dejected, with that slow-mo remix of "Heartless" blaring in my head.