“The Commuter” feels like a familiar face you would see every day on a bus ride home.
Starring Liam Neeson, the film marks the actor’s fourth collaboration with director Jaume Collet-Serra, and echoes their last transit-based thriller, “Non-Stop.” In both films, Neeson’s character receives instructions via his cell phone that threaten the safety of other passengers in a race against time.
“The Commuter” tells the story of Michael MacCauley (Neeson), a down-on-his-luck insurance salesman who’s just been fired. On his commute home, a strange woman named Joanna (Vera Farmiga) approaches him with a tantalizing, yet vague offer – using his skills as an ex-cop, he must locate a person on the train who “doesn’t belong” and place a tracking device on them in exchange for $100,000. Michael accepts, but as he searches, he realizes that he’s being drawn into the middle of a criminal conspiracy with dire stakes and limited options.
Despite the predictability and lack of originality, “The Commuter” still manages to be entertaining thanks to methodical directorial choices and strong performances from the cast – both elements that bolster the feel-good story of an everyman trying to do what’s right.
The first act of the film feels almost like a present-day Agatha Christie or Alfred Hitchcock thriller. For example, Joanna’s first appearance on screen is incredibly stylistic. Before meeting the character, the audience only catches glimpses of her – a flash of a polished pump, a peek of her patterned shirt, a quick shot of her eyes watching Michael through the crowd. The fast-paced editing imbues the film with uneasiness, even before the story begins.
Collet-Serra is artful in his cinematography, particularly in his use of continuous long takes to explore the vast expanse of the train. One shot in particular stands out – as Michael realizes the breadth of the task ahead of him, the camera moves backward through the car and into the next car, revealing train car after train car, each teeming with passengers and potential targets. In less skillful hands, the shots could drag, but underlined with the ominous yet subtle score, they add a frenetic energy to the screen.
However, by the second half of the movie, as Michael narrows down the list of suspects on the train, the film no longer seems concerned with thrilling suspense or artistic direction. At a certain point, “The Commuter” stops feeling like a tense, nimble thriller and more like a traditional Hollywood blockbuster, rife with explosions and cliched dialogue, which undercuts some of the dramatic tension that the first act works to build. The film’s final standoff – which occurs between Michael and the corrupt police forces that serve as pawns in the overarching conspiracy – is like a distant train that’s spotted from a mile away. As a result, the ending is too quick and tidy to feel satisfying.
Despite the film’s focus on the complexities of the commute-driven plot, its success rests squarely on the believability of the commuters themselves. Neeson’s committed performance as Michael is fairly standard for the actor, straddling the line between beleaguered middle-class family man and secret action hero with Holmesian powers of deduction. The film revolves around the audience’s ability to understand Michael’s desperation and suspend any disbelief about his superhuman skills. The task of this portrayal is not groundbreaking and a lesser actor may have just gone through the motions to deliver a cursory performance, but Neeson commits to the part and draws in audiences with ease.
Farmiga’s performance as Joanna is slightly more innovative than Neeson’s, but is cut short by the character’s limited appearance. Joanna’s first scene opposite Michael sets up her character as a quirky femme fatale – she charms with lighthearted banter and curiously wonders aloud about the individual personalities of the various commuters, but doesn’t hesitate to threaten their lives in order to scare Michael into compliance. After leaving the train, Farmiga is relegated to simply making phone calls that drive the narrative forward.
The rest of the cast is rounded out by a motley assortment of commuters also taking Michael’s ill-fated train, and the film succeeds in capturing the regularity of everyday life. Though none of the other commuting characters are very developed, the film takes care to show the diversity of people who use the train for their daily commute. This lends a sense of reality that amplifies the film’s plot, providing a layered and realistic background for an outlandish story.
“The Commuter” is a solid, if ultimately forgettable film. Much like the train at the center of its plot, it takes audiences from point A to point B as promised, and gives them a thrilling ride in the process.