The Commuter, which is now playing in general release, is top-shelf entertainment, with nail-biting suspense, captivating mystery, and loads of visual imagination. It confirms that Jaume Collet-Serra (Non-Stop, Run All Night, The Shallows) is one of the best genre directors working today. The film features one inspired set piece after another; Collet-Serra takes great pleasure in moviemaking, and his enjoyment is infectious. That the story is wildly implausible doesn’t detract from the immense satisfaction it has to offer. Rather, the narrative operates under a certain dream logic that’s wholly cinematic, and Collet-Serra delivers it with such emotional conviction that one gets absorbed regardless of the obvious plot holes. I’d be delighted if a more purely enjoyable movie gets released this year.
The Commuter is inspired from its very first sequence. Over the opening credits, Collet-Serra covers roughly a year in the life of Michael MacCauley (Liam Neeson), an ex-cop turned insurance salesman. The filmmakers show his morning routine—waking up, having breakfast with his wife and teenage son, driving to the train station where he boards the commuter line to Manhattan—but with each cut, the story advances days or weeks into the future. It’s a clever way of showing how MacCauley’s routine remains basically the same even as little aspects of it change. In one particularly affecting passage, Collet-Serra and editor Nicolas De Toth cut between several mornings at the train station before MacCauley’s wife (Elizabeth McGovern) drops him off. One morning they laugh together, the next they argue, then they appear cool toward each other, and finally they express affection again. By the end of the sequence, one recognizes the ebb and flow of their marriage and the daily comforts that hold it together.
Within minutes, however, the characters’ stable life is disrupted. After meeting with a young couple at his office—where MacCauley shares the story of how he and his wife lost their savings after the financial crisis of 2008—our hero gets laid off from his job. The economical narrative has already established that MacCauley has nothing to fall back on, and so one instantly shares in his devastation at the bad news. Neeson plays the 60-year-old everyman perfectly, conveying with carefully chosen gestures the character’s vulnerability and shame. Too embarrassed to call his wife and tell her what’s happened, MacCauley goes to a bar and commiserates with his old partner from the police force (Patrick Wilson), who reassures him that he still has a loving family at home.
And then things get odd. Riding the train back from the city, MacCauley meets a strange woman (Vera Farmiga) who makes him a peculiar offer. Will he locate someone on the train who’s getting off at the end of the line and plant a tracking device on his or her bag? If he does, he’ll get $100,000 in cash. Farmiga (who delivers an alluringly opaque performance) doesn’t divulge why this person needs to be tracked, but the implications seem sinister. Is the promise of the cash reward enough to make MacCauley overlook the dark mystery of the task? He certainly needs the money, and it shouldn’t be too difficult to deduce which person he needs to find. MacCauley accepts, albeit reluctantly; when he considers changing his mind, he learns that Farmiga’s character—apparently part of some shadowy cabal—will have his wife and son killed if he doesn’t carry out the job. Not only that, there are people on the train who are watching him to make sure he follows orders.
Collet-Serra makes the most of this Hitchcockian set-up, creating simmering suspense with virtually every shot. Each stranger on the train has the potential to be either MacCauley’s target or a murderous spy, and MacCauley has only so much time to figure out who’s who. There are times when his enemies reveal themselves to him, and these moments make for some of The Commuter’s most exciting passages. Several deadly fights take place on board the train, and Collet-Serra stages each one differently, finding new ways to frame and stage action within a relatively limited space. One fight transpires in a remarkable long-take that comprises the most impressive single shot I’ve seen in quite a while: the camera moves gracefully and constantly reframes the action as MacCauley and his opponent vie for the upper hand. At other times, Collet-Serra and De Toth build suspense through rapid—but never disorienting—cuts, as in a passage where MacCauley, having briefly gotten off the train, struggles to get back on while the vehicle gains speed.
Sequences like these showcase the director’s talent for presenting confinement in a cinematic manner. In fact most of Collet-Serra’s recent work is defined by confinement, with characters trapped in life-or-death struggles in tight locations or within brief windows of time. He seems to thrive on the challenge of creating multiple approaches to limited spaces—the aesthetic challenge mirrors the challenges in which his characters find themselves. Yet his work isn’t satisfying merely on a formal level. Throughout his movies, one experiences deep sympathy for the hero and minor characters alike. The Commuter is no exception; many of the various regulars on the train make strong impressions, and later in the story, when MacCauley forms alliances with the other passengers, the film turns rousingly optimistic. The good cheer with which Collet-Serra defines the supporting players ameliorates The Commuter’s nightmarish premise and draws viewers deeper into its spell.