Losing steam

A passable adaptation of best-selling psychological thriller

Starring Emily Blunt, Haley Bennett and Rebecca Ferguson. Directed by Tate Taylor. Cinemark 14, Feather River Cinemas and Paradise Cinema 7. Rated R.
Rated 3.0

Tate Taylor’s movie version of Paula Hawkins’ runaway best-seller isn’t exactly a train wreck, but it is a seemingly high-powered movie vehicle that sputters and backfires, and never really gets past second gear. It seems to try too hard at first, and then not hard enough and never really does generate any emotional momentum of its own.

The Girl on the Train starts off as a kind of artsy psychodrama, with the title character, Rachel (Emily Blunt), musing about her habit of scrutinizing and speculating on the lives and character of the people she sees in passing from her seat on the commuter train she rides each day. The early stream of images anchored to Rachel’s voice-over narration seems to put us inside Rachel’s mind in ways that hint at confusions and contradictions in her account of things and nudge us toward questions about what is “real” in Rachel’s story (and in the film itself).

Those questions apply to Rachel in particular, but also to a half-dozen other characters who figure prominently in her account of the devastation she experiences after an acrimonious divorce from husband Tom (Justin Theroux). Rachel’s studious voyeurism is especially focused on two neighboring women: Anna (Rebecca Ferguson), who is now married to Tom, and Megan (Haley Bennett), Anna’s nanny. By the time the whole thing settles down to the business of being a bait-and-switch murder mystery, Megan’s husband, Scott (Luke Evans), a rather amorous psychiatrist named Dr. Kamal Abdic (Edgar Ramírez); a wealthy lady (Lisa Kudrow) who enjoys dishy gossip; and a worldly wise police detective (Allison Janney) are all characters of interest. And they are all entangled in the film’s routinely deceptive brand of character drama.

The actors all bear up gamely through most of this, with brief moments that were really very good coming from Theroux (Tom, on the edges of his moment of truth) and Janney (conveying kindness mixed with arrogance in a single glance). Blunt, laboring under the requirements of an impossibly convoluted role, puts up an honorable fight of her own. For some of her character’s moments of near-hysteria, she sounds as if she were channeling the voice of a 10-year-old under hypnosis. And in what I think is the best shot in the entire film, she’s seen in close-up (aboard her train) with her head bowed and her eyes closed and then snapping calmly to attention, eyes open and looking straight at the camera, and at us.

That might be the signature shot, both for the movie we have and for the much more genuinely daring and complex one we might have had.