An unreliable narrator proves an unreliable eyewitness to a crime in “The Girl on the Train,” a tricky thriller whose tricks are less important than its riveting leading lady.
Emily Blunt has the title role in this film, based on the best selling Paula Hawkins novel, playing a wounded, perhaps wronged/perhaps guilt-ridden suburban divorcee who finds herself mixed up in a missing persons case.
Rachel sits by herself on the commuter train, watching, pondering, wondering and narrating, turning her “over-active imagination” onto the houses whose back porches she glimpses each day as she rides into the city. She builds imagined lives and passionate love affairs into one particular home — a blonde stranger with an exhibitionist streak — or at least a need for curtains that can be drawn lest strangers see in from passing trains.
Rachel admits “I’m not the girl I used to be,” but in this blonde (Haley Bennett) who has passionate, uninhibited sex with her lover/husband (Luke Evans), she sees herself — her former self.
“She’s what I lost.”
The film, a myriad of flashbacks within flashbacks, lays out that loss. Rachel was married. Her husband (Justin Theroux) has remarried. He and that new wife, another beautiful blonde (Rebecca Ferguson) are living in Rachel’s old house, just down the street from the mystery blonde. And Rachel won’t let it go — calling at all hours, stalking the new wife, alarming her and her new baby.
Director Tate Taylor (“The Help”) skillfully hides that literary “unreliable narrator” quality, that of the storyteller we realize isn’t telling the truth or doesn’t really know it — for just a few minutes. Then, the narration stops and Rachel speaks to a stranger on the train.
Her words are slurred. Her eyes blurry. That water bottle she keeps with her at all times? She’s emptying glass bottles of vodka into it. She has blackouts. Rachel is a wreck, unstable. Nothing she says or believes can be taken at face value.
And when the pretty blonde, who looks a lot like the woman who replaced Rachel in her own house, turns out to be the nanny of Rachel’s ex-husband’s new wife, and that nanny goes missing, we wonder — as should the cop (Allison Janney) on the case — what Rachel had to do with it.
Hawkins’ novel, like the film, flips back and forth between points of view. No wonder our narrator is unreliable. She doesn’t know Megan (Bennett) was a nanny. She doesn’t know she has been seeing a psychotherapist (Edgar Ramirez), that the marriage Rachel sees as her ideal was nothing of the sort.
“We were the saddest people we knew,” Megan tells the doctor, whose sessions she fills with frank sex talk and thinly-veiled come-ons. Did the doctor ever take the bait?
Rachel doesn’t see the suspicious nature of Megan’s husband, Scott — doesn’t know he breaks into Megan’s various devices, looking for evidence of infidelity. As Evans plays Scott with a volatile scowl and a menacing stubble, there might be more that Rachel doesn’t know.
And despite her stalking, Rachel has no real idea what’s going on in her former home, the state of that marriage, what either of those people are capable of. And it’s their nanny who is missing.
Blunt staggers through this picture, a ruined life captured in near-tears close-ups and the occasional scene where the camera lurches, slips in and out of focus and lets us see the world as she experiences it. It’s a marvelous performance augmented by sympathetic direction, camera work and narrative tricks.
The supporting players’ main job is play variations on a cagey theme, and Ramirez is best at this. Bennett (“The Magnificent Seven,””The Equalizer”) goes a bit broad in vamping up the oversexed nanny cliche she must play. But Hawkins and the script give Megan a backstory, and that covers some of the movie’s tracks.
As mysteries go, this must have worked better on the page than it does on the screen, because many if not most viewers will figure this mystery out long before Rachel sobers up enough to connect the dots herself.
Dissecting what we see leaves questions — Why isn’t Rachel’s number blocked on her ex-husband’s phone? Why isn’t she blocked from his Facebook page? Where are the restraining orders? Why hasn’t the cop brought her in for a thorough grilling?
But despite that, in spite of the three unhappy, possibly ill-used women/Oprah Book Club feel of it all, “The Girl on the Train” works. Blunt, in her best screen performance to date, gives it a heartbroken center and the alcohol-scented breath of life.
MPAA Rating: R for violence, sexual content, language and nudity
Cast: Emily Blunt, Haley Bennett, Edgar Ramirez, Rebecca Ferguson, Luke Evans, Justin Theroux
Credits:Directed by Tate Taylor, script by Erin Cressida Wilson, based on the Paula Hawkins novel. A Universal/Dreamworks release.
Running time: 1:52