Although penned by a phalanx of writers and starring Liam Neeson, the cinematically-savvy corners of the internet have been very quick to label The Commuter the work of director Jaume Collet-Sera. Perhaps grasping at straws in the wake of the death of the “action director” of the ‘80s and ‘90s, the internet has also deemed fit that Collet-Sera really is the dormant action-auteur we’ve all been silently waiting for over the past twenty or so years. And, if that wasn’t enough, he’s apparently a wrong-man thriller director whose pairings with Neeson rekindle the spirit of, if not existing on the same plane as, the famous thrillers of Hitchcock and Cary Grant! You know, the one’s where Hitchcock was playfully manipulating his audience and characters, rather than teasing us about the moral implications of how he was playfully manipulating his audiences and characters. Those films called for Jimmy Stewart in the lead.
Aided and abetted by Paul Cameron’s expressive, quasi-expressionistic camera and depleted, leached-out color palate, The Commuter makes a great first impression as a lynchpin for that argument: a post-recession locked-room potboiler with its finger on the pulse of the late ‘10s miasma just as surely as Hitch’s own explorations of mid-century middle-class voyeurism had post-war suburban spectatorship, and the desire to live vicariously through others’ lives when our own are thrown into disarray, on the mind.
Of course, as with every Neeson action-eer, this particular one drains out most of that goodwill en route to an expectedly overinflated climax. As even the sharpest sub-Hitchcockian efforts of this sort are wont to do, The Commuter flexes a serious formal muscle early on and then over-determines its sense of paranoia – as though wheezing to legitimize narratively what it, and we, already feels in its visuals– with one too many twists that distract from Collet-Sera’s surprisingly textured treatment of social dislocation early on. As with any good thriller in this mode, the key is that we feel the protagonist’s existential instability infringing on the film itself, tweaking the camera and contesting its own visual mastery over the material. We want to feel the camera peering around corners, watching its every step, no longer an omniscient observer but a disturbed participant in a closed theater of the mind. The Neeson character’s paranoia already destabilizes the film’s camera so well throughout the first hour of the film, but the end of the film – pardon the pun – doesn’t know when to pull on the brakes.
Before that, though, The Commuter radiates a kind of quotidian ruination, centered around ex-cop Michael MacCauley (Liam Neeson), who has been an insurance salesman for the past 10 years, beaten-down by missed opportunities and the shambling rhythms of the daily grind. This is all evoked in the film’s major, frontloaded stylistic gambit: a semi-experimental prologue where alternate inflections of the same morning routine are edited together in small slivers, mapping MaCauley’s life with his wife (Elizabeth McGovern) and high school son (Dean Charles Chapman), soon to be off to Syracuse University. It’s an indelible if obvious portrait of a middle-class, middle-aged existence not only because it evokes both disruptions of life – the parents arguing one morning, laughing another – but the rhymes between the days (all chopped-out and out of order). The film materializes in minutes an image of contented frustration, a moments-long impasto of a man whose existence clearly leaves him wanting, but whose life isn’t apocalyptic so much as a weave of everyday ruts and flows that go on.
But on this particular day into New York City, he’s let go from his job in a manner more unceremonious than tragic, offering not even the dramatic conclusive-ness that would afford for some sense of catharsis in Mike’s mind, or even a sense of personal blame – “If only I’d …” – that might at least validate some sense of cosmic balance to the universe for MacCauley. After stopping off at a cop bar to have a drink with his friend and ex-partner Det. Let. Alex Murphy (Patrick Wilson), he boards the Metro-North commuter train, as he’s done every weekday for the past 10 years, trying to muster the courage to inform his family about what’s happened. Until, of course, a mysterious woman, Joanna (Vera Farmiga, taking over duties for Julianne Moore in the absurdly overqualified female co-star in a Liam Neeson action thriller), offers him 100,000 dollars to place a tracker on an unsuspecting passenger. Initially benign and even mischievously playful, the situation soon mushrooms into malignancy: not only does Michael not know who the passenger is, other than that they are one of the non-regular passengers and will answer to “Prim,” but that his marking them may lead to their death.
On top of that thin and increasingly ungainly premise, Collet-Sera manages (especially early on) to spread out horizontally (in that he momentarily ropes other lives into his vision) and vertically (in that he is self-aware of his ability only to evoke a momentary cross-section, a sliver of many lives, which implicitly splay out past the walls of the screen and live beyond it, but that he does not have access to). Collet-Sera traces this constellation of everyday creatures with a fittingly workmanlike sense of purpose, drawing our attention to the implicit relationships and routines which afford MacCauley a ritualistic but only semi-fulfilling existence. This is a great, uneasy, already-weary resting state, and Collet-Sera – unfortunately – has to interrupt it with the intrusion of … well, a plot. But that’s how these things go.
While the aforementioned prologue is the only genuinely inspired moment in the film, and Collet-Sera’s camera is content to replace workaday miasma for swampy paranoia in the film’s back-half, the sense of genuine visual (and moral) perspective he offers initially does trickle down into the rest of a film that, later on, strains to manage the hostile, the hallucinatory, and the hectic. Collet-Sera’s camera hustles throughout the train, observing the environs with the assured confidence of a man whose sense of routine affords him a level of spatial comfort, a self-awareness the protagonist then mobilizes even as the increasingly unstable conditions around him contest his ritualistic certainty. At times, the level of formal craft on display in the film is immaculate, perhaps even (yes) Hitchcockian in its spatial awareness, although it certainly could be criticized, like that earlier director, for its authoritarianism, its predetermined aura where shots signify only one function and telegraph exactly the emotion we are meant to feel.
Still, although Collet-Sera effectively defamiliarizes the train-space around us, warping it into a hall of mirrors as the camera attempts to outflank Michael, his techniques are essentially familiar. Worse, the milieu of uncertainty early on inflames into the more typically histrionic aura of action cinema, a bigger-is-better vibe that is ultimately compensatory, a consolation for the genuine sense of character and drama we are being denied. But that may be the all-too-fitting irony of The Commuter: it goes absolutely off the rails at the end, and in doing so, we realize how fully it’s really bound to only one track. Despite all the glimpsed faces and momentary lives, there’s little sense of polyphony, no real possibility that the film is ever truly being dazed by the unexpected. It never really threatens to go off its predetermined rails.
Again, Hitchcockian films come in many flavors, and The Commuter briefly feigns consideration of Hitch’s more morally inquisitive motion pictures, tenuously suffusing the more visceral thrills in a sense of ethical ambiguity. The Hitch films fronted by Jimmy Stewart – Vertigo and Rear Window most famously – allow their moral convictions to be swallowed not only in a swamp of momentary paranoia (“Who can I really trust?”) but a more genuine moral ambiguity (“Can I trust myself?”), one that implicates the hero in much, much more than the temporary sense of moral blindness The Commuter settles for. In comparison, the film’s gestures in this direction feel disingenuous. Although Neeson acquits himself as admirably as ever, selling MacCauley’s dog-tired, work-a-day shuffle and beaten-down sense of self, the film ultimately favors Hitch’s wrong-man template – North by Northwest, Strangers on a Train, to mention two other famous train-adjacent films – and thus pushes Neeson down the easier path.
Admittedly, The Commuter is far more cohesive at a sociological level than the broad allegorizations of Collet-Sera and Neeson’s air-bound collaboration Non-Stop, and the increasingly nervous, overworked camera movements, which more and more draw us to Michael’s instability as much as his competence, represent entirely solid thriller craft. But the script’s more disturbing implications are about as ephemeral as the random passer-bys Michael says hello to on the train. Early on, the film’s beating heart of workaday existentialism diffuses into the very bones of the shot structure – so curious, so uncertain about a world it felt to be normal. But by the film’s end, it doesn’t so much diffuse as evaporate entirely.