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‘The Girl on the Train’ Review: This Emily Blunt Thriller Gets Off Track

A strong lead performance is about all this bungled adaptation of Paula Hawkins’s twisty novel has to offer

From the commuter train she takes every day, a lonely woman named Rachel (Emily Blunt) stares out the window and into the house of a beautiful couple, their romance a twice-daily love story offered in fragments whizzing by. Of course, the situation isn’t all it seems in that suburban home where Megan (Haley Bennett, “The Magnificent Seven”) and Scott (Luke Evans) like their sex in front of open windows, nor are things all that copacetic in the mind of Rachel, a serious alcoholic still in mourning for a busted marriage.

Then there’s the case of the movie version of the runaway bestselling thriller “The Girl on the Train,” Tate Taylor‘s suspense-free jumble, which is its own sloppy distortion of author Paula Hawkins’s pacy, beloved beach read about desire, self-destruction and latent violence.

Granted, it was never going to be easy to corral Hawkins’ trio of distinct female narrators — Rachel, Megan, and Anna (Rebecca Ferguson, “Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation”), new wife to Rachel’s ex-husband Tom (Justin Theroux) — into one smoothly engineered mystery. The set-up, moved from the outskirts of London to the suburbs outside of Manhattan, is a tricky mix of questions and coincidences. Rachel’s idyllic view of Megan and Scott is shattered when, from her train window vantage point, she spots Megan in the arms of what looks to be another man.

That night, Rachel goes on a blackout bender, waking up in the morning covered in blood, and learning that Megan’s gone missing. Believing she has eyewitness information that could help, she inserts herself into the investigation, but Rachel toggles between a desire to know the truth and a fear of what it will reveal.

Meanwhile, we’re also getting the perspectives of Megan, who’s been seeing a therapist (Edgar Ramirez) to deal with a damaged past, and Anna, who lives down the street from Megan and used to hire her to look after her and Tom’s newborn. Anna’s emotional trigger is the unhinged woman whose husband she took — in one of Rachel’s less sane moments, shown in flashback, she showed up at her old house and made steps toward taking Anna’s and Tom’s baby.

One presumes the hiring of Tate Taylor to direct the screenplay adaptation by Erin Cressida Wilson (“Men, Women & Children”) had to do with Taylor’s previous handling of a story involving multiple women in “The Help”. But when you’ve been spoiled by the dark, meticulous David Fincher lending his artistry to paperback potboilers with “Girl” in the title (one with a “Dragon Tattoo,” one “Gone”) — even when they’re not his best work — Taylor’s flat commercial instincts make for diminishing returns.

For a movie built on the voyeuristic pull of lives lived in full view of strangers, and the secrets people hide in plain sight, “The Girl on the Train” is anything but the kind of elegantly skeevy pulp made disreputably fun by a DePalma or Verhoeven, or the twisted psychodrama that calls to mind Hitchcock or Haneke. Instead, the overall mood created by the crummy, pinched visuals and logic-strained rhythm is of something scanned and discarded, like a tabloid article or a Lifetime movie.

Taylor is woefully incapable of unfolding the three-pronged, back-and-forth-in-time narrative with any coherence or artfulness, leaving the movie to feel like a gossipy yarn told by someone way too impatient to get to the good stuff: “Oh, then this happened, but wait, there was this thing last year, and, okay, where was I? Right, you won’t believe this part!”

There’s a small irony to the fact that Emily Blunt‘s performance survives the mess around her: the movie is more drunk than Rachel is, never more so than when the camera gets inches from her reddened face, trying to heighten the wooziness. (Think Jon Lovitz in Master Thespian garb, raising a hand and saying “Directing!”) Despite being done no favors by Taylor, Blunt still manages to embody the clever notion that a thriller filtered through an obsessed, memory-challenged protagonist can be both puzzle and character study. The movie may make hash of the mystery elements, but at least Blunt’s believably broken and confused Rachel offers something to latch onto as the not-too-hard-to-figure-out twist gets closer to being revealed.

The other actors, unfortunately, don’t fare so well. Sometimes they’re victims of Taylor’s cheeseball sensibilities. (Evans and Ramirez may as well be in a “Red Shoe Diaries.”) Elsewhere they strain credibility, as with Allison Janney‘s grating detective, or they’re saddled with impossible dialogue that reads better as first-person narration than it sounds as spoken exposition, as when Bennett has to introduce herself to us as Megan with, “A teacher once told me I was a mistress of self-reinvention.” Bennett and Ferguson, in particular, suffer from a sense that their spotlit women are more important as gears in a clockwork crime story than as fleshed-out variations on the restless spouse and the protective housewife.

The uninitiated who see “The Girl on the Train” and wonder what the fuss was all about will have missed the breezy manipulations that made Hawkins’ book so pleasurable. But they and disgruntled fans of the novel will certainly share one thing with its booze-addled protagonist: Lost hours they can’t get back.