'The Girl on the Train' Is Awful... Until the Big Twist

emily blunt girl on the train
Emily Blunt in The Girl on the Train | Universal Pictures
Emily Blunt in The Girl on the Train | Universal Pictures

This article contains major spoilers for The Girl on the Train, the new thriller based on the hugely successful novel by Paula Hawkins.

The new movie The Girl on the Train stacks mystery atop mystery, and tucks reveals inside reveals. But one question will forever remain unanswered: how did it go so wrong, only to go so right?

Based on the popular book, The Girl on the Train should have amounted to a fun, trashy night at the cineplex or a must-watch whenever it arrived on HBO. Rachel (Emily Blunt) is an alcoholic divorcée who rides the train past her old house each evening to catch a glimpse of what could have been. Her ex, Tom (Justin Theroux), is still residing there, but now he's with homewrecker Anna (Rebecca Ferguson) and their baby, and generally living the life that Rachel would like to have. Living two doors down from Tom and Anna is Megan (Haley Bennett), a struggling ingenue whom Rachel frequently sees through her depressive haze, and who may or may not be hooking up with another guy -- and in broad daylight! One night, Rachel makes a drunken decision to hop off the train and screw with happy homewrecker Anna -- a confrontation Rachel can't recall later, which becomes a problem when it turns out that Megan was murdered that very same night.

If only this convoluted but interesting setup were any fun. Like Gone Girl, The Girl on the Train bounces between perspectives, including Megan's pre-trauma timeline, to maximize the surprises. But The Girl on the Train strains to wring suspense from the best-selling source material. Blunt, who's typically subtler than her name suggests, spends so much time sniffling, yammering, and panicked, you'd think she was starring in a presidential debate. Rebecca Ferguson, last seen kicking ass in Mission: Impossible - Rogue Nation, and Haley Bennett, last seen kicking ass in The Magnificent Seven, are stuck as floundering wives who do the opposite of kick ass.

The movie also idolizes Justin Theroux, Luke Evans, and Édgar Ramírez, the male counterparts winding up the women, as slabs of beef worth lusting over, despite not displaying any redeeming qualities beyond "looks good in Abercrombie." (You can almost understand Megan leaving her husband for a guy who can pull off Chelsea boots like Ramírez, but then you remember her eight tons of psychological baggage and go back to not buying it.)

Director Tate Taylor (The Help) can't counterbalance The Girl on the Train's horrors. There's no Lifetime original movie camp or the kind of sinister glee that can turn a horrifying crime into a hilarious Coen brothers movie. Instead, it's airport paperback therapy, where addiction, obsession, sexual hunger, and the plights of motherhood are curses to conquer through the cranking of an emotional vise. The script can't thread these plights through the central mystery because the central mystery barely exists; only after an hour of drowning in her own grief, and an hour of Taylor drowning the audience in the wavy slow-motion of '90s true-crime reenactments, does Rachel summon the fortitude to search for answers surrounding Megan's disappearance. Even then, she's her own worst enemy, and the revelations aren't satisfying (unless remembering blackout-intoxicated moments through a pounding hangover sounds like a blast).

But just when you've given up on the whole thing as being unredeemable, a twist ending comes along and makes you pay attention all over again. In fact, The Girl on the Train's greatest mystery is how it could fail so hard yet have an ending that's so damn good.

Consider this a big old spoiler warning: click away now if you don't want to know how this movie ends.

rebecca ferguson girl on the train
Rebecca Ferguson and Justin Theroux in The Girl on the Train | Universal Pictures

In the final 10 minutes, Rachel realizes that her ex, Tom (Theroux), spent most of their marriage taking advantage of her drinking problem and gaslighting her into oblivion. And she also remembers that, on the night she came to town to mess with Anna, the night she can't remember, Tom beat the crap out of her in a park and then rode off with Megan, his new lover. That same night, as Anna learns through secret text messages and Rachel discovers via the magical telepathy that one gains through years of steady vodka intake, Tom finds out that Megan is pregnant with his child. Two minutes of rage later, Megan is dead and buried in the woods.

The Girl on the Train crescendoes with finger-pointing, slappy assault, and Tom's confession, a lunatic justification for murder that will make men's rights activists squeal. The man lives for damaging the women in his life. The movie revels in his dopiness to empower Rachel and Anna, who end their shared husband with a corkscrew to the neck. Even as he's bleeding out on the finely trimmed lawn, Anna winds the pointed edge a few more times. Its such operatic justice that both women drinking his blood in victory would almost play. Almost.

To be clear: the end of The Girl on the Train doesn't justify the means of The Girl on the Train, a testing two hours of meandering miserablism that ends with a hardy "hell yeah." Is the finale earned, or was Blunt and Ferugson finally seizing the screen a gasp of air after a long dive? Make that two The Girl on the Train mysteries that will remain unsolved.

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Matt Patches is a senior editor at Thrillist. He previously wrote for Grantland, Esquire.com, and Vulture. Find him on Twitter @misterpatches.