In his fourth collaboration with director Jaime Collet-Serra (Unknown, Run All Night), Oscar-nominated-actor-turned-punchy-man1 Liam Neeson stars as Michael Macaulay, insurance salesman.
Fired from his job after ten years, and already old enough to qualify for a senior rail pass, Michael is on his regular commute home, trying to figure out how to tell his family, when he’s approached by a mysterious woman (Vera Farmiga)2. Bright-eyed and ingratiating, she poses him a hypothetical: would he be willing to find and identify a particular stranger on the train in return for $100,000.
The question proves, of course, to be far more than hypothetical and so Michael finds his forced to make use of another particular set of skills – detective skills! Collet-Serra’s camera creeps past feet and glides through punched ticket-stubs as Michael wanders through the carriages, trying to narrow down his list of suspects: cheery, awkward entrepreneur (Brit actor-writer-magician Andy Nyman, passably American), the crusty near-retiree (Breaking Bad’s Jonathan Banks); those aboard include an obnoxious hedge-fund manager (Shazad Latif).
The Commuter boils down to Strangers on a Train3 meets Non-Stop4; only the stranger is unknown and there are plenty of stops to complicate matters. All he knows is that they go by “Prynne”, that they have a bag, and that he has till Cold Springs to figure out their identity.
A classic action-thriller about an ordinary-ish man5 working under extraordinary circumstances, Neeson once again makes for an unlikely but convincing everyman. His daily routine is related to us in a multi-angle opening montage of wake-up alarms, snatched breakfasts, petty arguments, passing seasons, and plans for the future.
Where Bruce Willis got by on a smirk, Neeson carries with him a hard-worn believability and in his eyes a glint of genuine decency.6 When Michael tries to engage a withdrawn, punky teenage (Lady Macbeth‘s Florence Pugh, a BAFTA Rising Star nominee) in conversation, you believe that, more than just fact finding, he’s genuinely interested in her story. He even manages to look slightly bewildered when getting hit, as I believe most of us would; even if it’s him who started the fight.
The film is somewhat lacking in thrills; save for a brief sequence that sees Michael stuck dangling beneath one of the carriages, inches away from the slicing wheels.7 Poirot never had to deal with this shit. It’s about the time that the film’s screenplay – written by Byron Willinger, Philip de Blasi, and Ryan Engle – begins delving in to the deeper conspiracy8 that things go off the rails.
Still, with its old-school charm and (largely untapped) vein of commentary about the financial crisis and its impact on the commuting class – we are all Commuticus! – it’s just about worth a cinema trip.
- When you think of his recent output, it’s unlikely that the first film that comes to mind is Silence.
- Who between this and Source Code has something of a line in giving people missions on trains.
- Collet-Serra even manages to work in a nice dolly zoom.
- Only if you break a window you won’t necessarily get sucked out.
- Craggy, hard-hitting, six-foot-four sexagenarian.
- There’s a reason he was chosen to voice the titular monster – kindly, if terrifying – in A Monster Calls.
- To add insult to possible fatality, he then has to find a way to get back on board.
- Note the presence of Macauley’s cop buddy, Chekov’s Patrick Wilson