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Non-Review Review: The Commuter

The Commuter is the best Neeson Season movie since The Grey and the best movie about the financial crisis since The Big Short.

On paper, The Commuter is a mildly interesting premise that feels very much of a piece with the typical January awards-fare counter-programming. It is very much a high-concept action film that feels populated from a mad lib. [Liam Neeson/Bruce Willis/Gerard Butler] is a [former cop/current cop/law enforcement official] who finds himself embroiled in a race against time to [protect/rescue/expose/defeat] a [loved one/conspiracy].

McCauley took the instruction not to fire the gun inside the carriage a little… literally.

The Commuter is very much of piece with Liam Neeson’s other collaborations with director Jaume Collet-Serra; Unknown, Non-Stop, Run All Night. It is a movie about a weary protagonist embroiled in a situation beyond his control, the perfect fodder for a midweek movie to be enjoyed with a bucket of pop corn and a soft drink of choice. However, what elevated The Commuter above these earlier collaborations is similar to what elevated Collet-Serra’s The Shallows above so many familiar shark movies.

The Commuter has the look and feel of a big dumb action movie, a film inviting the audience to engage on its own terms rather than theirs. However, there is a very knowing and self-aware quality to The Commuter, an understanding of what the audience expects of the film and what the film can expect from the audience in return. The result is a film that always feels smarter and better than it needs to be, very carefully calibrated; just serious enough to work, just self-aware enough to charm. The result is a delightfully enjoyable action film.

Dial “C” for Commuter.

As with Unknown, Non-Stop and The Shallows, there is a very real sense of Jaume Collet-Serra as a Hitchcockian stylist, a director who builds pulpy thrillers around simple philosophical and existential premises. It is always clear what is at stake in The Commuter from one scene to the next, with Collet-Serra creating an effective claustrophobic atmosphere in his tightly-confined setting. However, it is always clear what is simmering just beneath the surface as well.

Collet-Serra is a very stylish director, and consciously so. His stylistic sensibilities are strong, arguably elevating what might otherwise seem a very boilerplate script. There is a sense that Collet-Serra has grown as a filmmaker since his earliest collaborations with Neeson, and is much more confident and assertive than he was in previous films. There are any number of striking compositions and shots in The Commuter, Collet-Serra understanding the absurdity of his premise and so embracing the opportunity to heighten his directorial touch.

A platform for his talent.

Computer-generated animation in these action films always approaches the uncanny valley, but Collet-Serra consciously rides the camera through that uncomfortable space. The Commuter is packed with shots that would be impossible to render in practical terms, the camera moving through physical spaces and compositing elements in such a way as to draw attention to the unreality of it all. The result is a film that looks as absurd as it feels, as if inviting the audience to appreciate its constructed world in purely technical terms.

This approach is risky, with Collet-Serra’s style occasionally threaten to push the audience out of the picture as easily as it pushes the camera through a computer-generated window frame. However, it would seem churlish to complain when it results in compositions that are elegant and effective, that communicate tone and mood with an endearing frankness. These visuals are striking and memorable; time-lapsed shots of Michael McCauley moving through Grand Central Station, or an overhead shot of McCauley alone on a side walk that gradually declutters.

Reflecting on his predicament.

Virtually everything about The Commuter is much better than it needs to be. The mechanics driving the plot are familiar, but they are well-constructed. The obligatory action scenes with ridiculously long takes are also present, but delivered with total commitment. Perhaps the best example of this is the manner in which Collet-Serra chooses to deliver the mandatory family back story that is all but required for middle-aged male protagonists in stories like this.

Michael McCauley has a very traditional family life. The movie intercuts the opening credits with snippets of McCauley’s morning routine, from waking up next to his wife to discussing the book of the month with his son. These sequences suggest routine, time-lapsed to unfold across seasons and even years; the audience watches the familiar patterns play out to denote the passage of time. Sometimes Michael is arguing with his wife, sometimes they are joking. Sometimes his son is worried about college, and sometimes the parents are worried about paying for it.

Getting carri(ag)ed away.

The information conveyed in terms of character and plot is very conventional; there are precious few surprises to be found in the story that is being told in The Commuter. However, what is most impressive is how the movie chooses to tell this story. Subtle variations and shifts, without context or without exposition, create a sense of a family life lived between these morning commutes. It is a very efficient way of conveying necessary story information, but it is also confident and stylised. There is an attention to detail that is rarely found in movies like this.

There is a lot of this nuance and minor variation found within The Commuter, the film hitting a familiar note from a slightly different angle. Michael McCauley is a typical Neesonian protagonist. He is a family man who tries to look out for his wife and his child; even if there is some indication that he has not excelled in the traditional patriarchal role, there is an expectation that he will step up when the chips are down. However, much like in Non-Stop, there is a sense that McCauley is a much more human protagonist than the iconic Bryan Mills from Taken.

A lot of baggage.

Repeatedly over the course of The Commuter, McCauley finds himself beaten and humiliated. The character repeated adopts the familiar Neeson fighting stance, one intended to take advantage of the actor’s impressive physical stature, only to lead to a somewhat humiliating and desperate tumble without the grace or ruthless efficiency that defines Neeson’s more familiar action hero beats. As the formula dictates, McCauley is a former police officer. However, The Commuter suggests that he was never a particularly good one.

Although it initially seems like McCauley might have found himself in this situation owing to his “very particular set of skills”, the climax of the film reveals that it was nothing as grandiose. McCauley blunders his way through an investigation without any real investigative prowess. He seems more likely to depend on skills honed during his ten years as a life insurance salesman than in his early career as a law enforcement officer. The Commuter draws attention to McCauley’s blunders, the film hinting that the character is more desperate than efficient.

Beaten cop.

As with Non-Stop, this level of nuance allows Neeson the chance to flesh McCauley out into something resembling a human being. Of course, but the end of the film, McCauley is just as much an action hero as John McClane or Snake Plissken, but there is something very personal in the earliest scenes. Neeson gets to play a range of emotions normally denied to these characters; desperation, panic, shame. Collet-Serra embraces this opportunity, relishing handheld close-ups on his lead actor’s face in such a way as to catch the flicker of such feelings across his visage.

There is also a sense of self-awareness playing through the film. In some ways, the climax of The Commuter plays as an extended riff on the climax of Batman Begins, with Liam Neeson once again finding himself wrestling for control of a train careening down the tracks. The presence of Vera Farmiga and Patrick Wilson in the cast seems to nod towards their collaborations in The Conjuring. Sam Neill is playing a twentieth-century variation on the ambiguous police officer he played in Peaky Blinders.

Neill by mouth.

Even during the film’s third act, where the action literally comes off the rails, there is a sense that The Commuter is having a great deal of fun in executing the familiar beats expected of a story like this. As McCauley uncovers an unlikely conspiracy that would make Fox Mulder blush, Neeson and Collet-Serra ratchet up the claustrophobic intensity; Collet-Serra pushes the camera close as Neeson rattles off his lines as if trying to make sense of the plot through free association. Even knowing that McCauley is right, even having seen the film, the paranoia is palpable and effective.

In keeping with sense that The Commuter is much better than it needs to be, writers Byron Willinger, Philip de Blasi, and Ryan Engle clearly want The Commuter to be about something in the vaguest psychological terms. Stylistically, Collet-Serra evokes Alfred Hitchcock, and this subtext fits with that. Tension bubbled through Non-Stop and The Commuter. His interests are different, of course; unlike Hitchcock, Collet-Serra’s direction feels almost sexless. The moment it appears like two central characters might be flirting, they pause to flash their wedding rings at one another.

A rather Pat resolution.

There are obvious Hitchcockian elements seeded in the story. The central premise of the film evokes a twist upon Strangers on a Train, where McCauley is asked to help his fellow commuter track down a stranger to which he has no tangible connection. Similarly, the movie’s emphasis on voyeurism and secrets is par for the course with these kinds of stories. As McCauley navigates the linked train cars at the centre of the narrative, he seems to find himself at an intersection of lives; conversations half-overheard, strange movements fleetingly glimpsed, secrets barely suggested.

Financial anxiety simmers through The Commuter. Economic insecurity that echoes through the script, informing the actions of the characters and their central motivations. If Non-Stop was Collet-Serra and Neeson playing through the conventions of a War on Terror thriller, then The Commuter is a story about the financial crisis. In fact, the crash is even mentioned early in the film by McCauley, who recalls that his family lost everything when the bubble burst. McCauley takes time out from his crisis to give an investment banker a message “from middle-class America.”

Fits the bills.

There are times when The Commuter seems to play almost as an extended metaphor for the financial crisis. Laid off from a job that he has worked for ten years, “living hand to mouth” and “five years from retirement”, McCauley is hooked through the promise of financial reward for his actions; without understanding what those actions entail and what the consequences might be. Although somewhat underdeveloped, the morality play at the heart of The Commuter is rooted in culpability. Wondering why this is happening, his tormentor replies, “You took the money.”

When The Commuter begins, McCauley is struggling to figure out how to pay for his son’s college tuition. Taken aback by the figures, his wife points out, “That doesn’t include room and board.” When he is fired, McCauley struggles with how best to articulate this information to his wife, feeling emasculated and humiliated. In this moment of weakness, a mysterious stranger shows up; stylish high heels stand in for cloven hoofs. (“We can get to anyone anywhere,” she boasts at one point.) McCauley is offered the money that he needs, the terms of the payment deliberately vague.

Bringing McCauley to heel.

“How much are they paying you?” McCauley demands of an assassin with he tussles towards the end of the film. “The same as they’re paying you, I suppose,” the character nonchalantly remarks. “No matter you much they pay you, you always end up owing more.” This seems to be the central premise of The Commuter, in which money acts as a corrupting force, but those who wield it are often insulated from the carnage. McCauley’s old partner muses, “You want to know what God thinks about money, look at who he gives it to.”

The Commuter suggests a deal with the devil, a moral compromise for financial gain compounded through selfishness and shortsightedness. (Reinforcing this allegorical quality, an investment banker sarcastically muses, “Next stop, the seventh circle of hell.”) When McCauley discovers that his investigation might lead to the death of a third party, even to protect his own family, his tormentor seems surprised at his indignation. “You’d choose the life of a stranger over your wife and son?” she asks.

A trained killer.

McCauley’s dilemma reflects that facing middle-class America in the wake of the financial crisis, the victimisation of innocent people in order to protect his own social standing. McCauley is asked to find one person on the train, and quickly narrows the field down to a handful of suspects; tellingly, most of these potential victims are minorities or immigrants. McCauley is being asked to sacrifice them in order to sustain his middle-class existence. It is a potent political metaphor in the context of the modern political age.

Even more broadly, The Commuter suggests that greed and indifference are mortal sins, that they corrupt and taint everything with which they come in contact. At one point, McCauley muses that he has travelled with his fellow commuters between five and ten times a week for a decade, but he doesn’t actually know any of them. They are all strangers on a train, even after so many years. There is a breakdown of social bonds, an anonymity that renders this financial anxiety all the more dangerous.

Showing considerable (lens) flare.

The Commuter is not perfect. It suffers from many of the limitations inherent to these types of films. Most obviously, the third act is a gigantic mess in which the film shifts from heightened psychological thriller towards more conventional January action fare. The film is constructed tightly enough that it never spirals out of control, but The Commuter still slows to halt around the same time as the train carriage driving the action. There are also precious few surprises in the story. As much as The Commuter plays with conventions, it very rarely upends them.

Still, The Commuter is a deeply satisfying early January thriller, that stands as the best collaboration of its director and leading man. It is a film that is much smarter and more effective than it needs to be, designed with a great deal more care than is strictly necessary. The results are more than satisfying, they are genuinely engaging.

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2 Responses

  1. That’s a great review. Now, I want to see this.

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