This sort-of ghost story/sort-of psychological thriller has a nice, slow-building sense of creepiness – but at heart it’s the sort of pat, female-led mystery that Hallmark make for TV in the US (and are often seen on the UK’s Channel 5 in the afternoon). It was even made in Canada, home to many a suds-and-slash quickie.
Jane (Abbie Cornish), a young mother, photographs spooky old houses as an art project – and is surprised to learn that the place she is particularly drawn to is actually her own property, inherited from a family who were slaughtered while she was a child and whom she can barely remember. After a car crash caused by the sight of a little girl in the road, which is a well-staged set-piece featuring an eerily locked-down camera shot of the driver not quite catching on to what’s happening while the world spins outside the windows, Jane gets away with remarkably minor injuries, but examination reveals that she once suffered a severe hammering to the skull. She has an unfortunate mix of short-term amnesia and reawakened repressed memories, and a handy shrink (Justin Long) tells her – nudge nudge – that the mind can sometimes make up memories to fill in gaps. On cue, mystery parcels wrapped in red ribbon are delivered, containing old toys, a key, a broken ballerina figure and other clues.
As Jane remembers more about the day her parents and sister got bludgeoned – leaving her as bloody, suspect sole survivor – her long-suffering husband (Diego Klattenhoff) and nagging kid (Lola Flanery) worry about her but keep doing exactly the wrong thing. Meanwhile, a reticent uncle (Dermot Mulroney) has such a minor role that – as with Long – it’s plain he’s going to feature heavily in the eventual explanation. Director/co-writer Ed Gass-Donnelly previously paid his dues with The Last Exorcism Part II – which was co-written by Damien Chazelle – and here shows much more ambition, even if the script (co-written by Colin Frizzell) is a steady plod through all the woman-going-nutso tropes.
Though Jane is a not-very-engaging heroine, the blonde, intense Cornish is an interesting, odd presence – with the film balancing the possibility that she might be a danger to her family as much as endangered by spooks or psychos. Cornish plays some of the crackup moments with conviction, including a Shining-like run around a straw bale maze at a county fair. Everyone else just has to be earnest and patient – female suspense, even on a breakout level of Girl on a Train, is a rare area of the movies where men get stuck with thankless long-suffering hunk-with-a-beard roles and only get to cut loose if they’re shown up in the last five minutes as a culprit.