What makes a movie adaptation of a book succeed? The quality of the source material matters, of course, but it’s hardly a guarantee; a lot of great novels have curled up and died on screen, and some forgettable or even truly awful ones have been pulled through the weeds.
The film rights for Paula Hawkins’ The Girl on the Train were snapped up months before publication, a move that easily seems prescient now: Her absorbing and darkly cinematic tale became a near-instant literary phenomenon when it was released in early 2015, going on to sell a staggering 11 million copies and spending months atop international best-seller lists. But it’s also a brittle and often nasty piece of work, a tricky puzzle-box noir with almost no redeeming characters and a narrator so unreliable she makes Memento feel like a news brief.
From its stark opening scene, Train’s much-anticipated movie version chooses to embrace that ugliness, allowing Emily Blunt’s Rachel to be nearly as vodka-drenched and emotionally wrecked as Hawkins’ “barren, divorced, soon-to-be-homeless alcoholic” was on the page. (Though she is no longer seriously, or even scantly, overweight; Hollywood’s imagination has its limits.) Haunted and hollow-eyed, Rachel maintains a daily ritual of commuting to the city from her squalid room in a New York suburb, although any semblance of a job is long gone. Instead, she fills her time with a narrow but highly focused set of hobbies: finding oblivion at the bottom of a bottle, sketching in her notebook, and spying on her old life—particularly the ex-husband (Justin Theroux) living in her ex-home (conveniently visible from the train) with the ex-mistress (Rebecca Ferguson) who is now the mother of his child.
Eventually Rachel’s obsession migrates to their neighbors two doors down: a golden couple whose careless radiance throws her own desolation into sharp relief. So when she sees the young wife, a blank-eyed beauty named Megan (Haley Bennett), kissing another man, the betrayal feels as real to her as her own. Blind with martini-fueled rage, Rachel decides to confront her—only to wake up the next day, bruised and bloodied, to the news that Megan has gone missing. Was it free will or foul play? Could Rachel be an unknowing witness, or worse, the perpetrator?
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. A–