For The Commuter, director Jaume Collet-Serra shrewdly casts longtime collaborator Liam Neeson, who recently announced (again) that he’s retiring from action movies, as a middle-class man struggling through a sudden layoff. In what’s surely no coincidence, the justification that Neeson cited for his retirement to reporters at last year’s Toronto International Film Festival—“I’m sixty-fucking-five”—has found its way into The Commuter’s dialogue almost verbatim. “I’m 60 years of age,” pleads Michael MacCauley (Neeson) when given the axe by his boss at the Manhattan insurance firm where he’s worked as a salesman for more than a decade, implying that he’s not yet old enough to weather his remaining years without financial stability. Where the real Neeson appears to be resolute in his decision, MacCauley is a bundle of nerves as he’s booted from the deceptive comfort of a high-rise office building to the grimy swarms of a New York gripped by recession-era anxiety.
An uncommonly perceptive genre filmmaker as gifted with minutia as he is with spectacle, Collet-Serra holds MacCauley’s moment of existential dread in close-up just long enough to allow us to process the creases and wrinkles on Neeson’s face, which alone put the film’s defining dilemma into clear focus. MacCauley is a guy who’s paid his dues enough to deserve a stress-free release from 40-hour-a-week drudgery but who’s found himself in a time that rewards only con men. And he’s not an isolated case. In its bravura credit sequence, which fleetly crosscuts through 10 years of MacCauley’s morning routine until a sense of despair sets in, The Commuter implicitly links its main character’s life circumstances with those of his fellow passengers on the Metro-North train he boards every day to and from the city, a locomotive bursting with wage slaves from the outer boroughs—a manifestation, quite simply, of the put-upon American middle class.
The film’s plot involves the intrusion of unfamiliar parties aboard the train—namely, a mysterious woman named Joanna (Vera Farmiga), her elite henchmen, and a few persons carrying suspicious cargo. When Joanna, putting on a flirtatious front, solicits MacCauley’s participation in a social experiment that will allegedly involve a cash prize, she elicits his disbelief, but when the hefty sum of money is found stashed away in a bathroom, only a brief giddiness precedes MacCauley’s realization that he’s found himself in the wrong company. The malicious game he’s stumbled into requires that he zero in on the train’s non-regulars and interrogate them by whatever means necessary until he’s found a passenger with a valuable item in his or her bag, at which point he must terminate them—all before a specified stop, or else his wife and son will be killed. In effect, he’s forced to go on the offensive against fellow travelers who exist in much the same state of vulnerability as himself, a scenario whose allegorical dimension—one-percenters stoking anxiety and antagonism in the lower classes for their own gain—is strongly apparent.
From this lucid and politically sturdy foundation, Collet-Serra begins flexing his muscles as a storyteller and a stylist, dialing up the screenplay’s Agatha Christie-esque sense of intrigue while experimenting with myriad point-of-view effects and thoroughly developing the atmosphere of his constrained location. With only momentary exceptions—a police search that temporarily leaves our hero’s whereabouts unknown, a cutaway to a depopulated train platform that interrupts a screeching climactic set piece—the audience is never separated from MacCauley’s limited perspective, which is further compromised and complicated by perpetually shifting late-afternoon light, cabins that jolt in and out of alignment with the curve of train tracks, and the unspoken social boundaries of the train. Collet-Serra devises a number of tricky technical maneuvers to approximate his protagonist’s growing immersion and paranoia: speed-ramped tracking shots that snake through the train’s aisles and whip-pan from window to window, CGI-aided camera moves that glide through hole-punched tickets as though attached to homing missiles, and hallucinatory zooms across the train’s entire length that seem to be feverishly materializing MacCauley’s mental map.
Meanwhile, the taunts come fast and furious. First there are those of the train itself, which is slyly peppered with advertisements that mock MacCauley’s predicament—“If you see something, say something”—and is staffed by attendants who either are actively unhelpful (Killian Scott’s spineless slacker) or know MacCauley too well to not be apprehensive about his peculiar behavior (Colin McFarlane’s wise conductor, a role that feels terrifically lived-in). Then there’s Joanne’s persistent calling from a remote spot. She keeps reminding her victim of the stakes of the agreement and twice even orchestrates a civilian killing just to prove that she’s omniscient and isn’t kidding around. The rate at which Farmiga’s character goes from amiable weirdo to amoral supervillain isn’t wholly convincing, nor is a good portion of the plot’s scaffolding (Joanne’s coterie of rogue employees, for one, is a real head-scratcher), but Collet-Serra keeps the action so grounded in MacCauley’s frenetic toil that, in the moment, any lapses in logic that occur around him end up just feeding the woozy, humid, paranoid atmosphere.
Neeson’s physicality has never been cheetah-like, but again he compensates with the sheer lumbering force of his movements and an ability to sell their strenuousness through strained facial contortion. His knack for instantly embodying morally tough and trustworthy audience surrogates also continues unabated, though here he’s admittedly been given a character who lacks any of the past indiscretions or character flaws of Run All Night’s Jimmy Conlon or Non-Stop’s Bill Marks. What The Commuter is after isn’t psychological complexity, but rather the assessment of a man’s seemingly inexhaustible fortitude and decency in the face of boundless corruption, and the final optimism of its worldview, albeit yielding yet another mawkish Collet-Serra epilogue, lands with a conviction that’s rare in contemporary Hollywood cinema—a resilience that’s strong enough for Neeson to ride out on.