Now, the film is straight-up, legit goofball nonsense. Neeson plays a man who has rode the same train every day for ten years and on the day he’s laid off from work a mysterious woman boards with him and offers him $100,000 to identify and track a mystery passenger. Just from the premise it feels a little goofy. Probably because the classic plot of a locked room thriller is now the purview of nerd shit. Like those escape the room games or geeky pieces of interactive theatre.
The whole thing could easily barrel around, turn into The Man Who Knew Too Little, if not for the fact that everyone in this joint is playing it totally straight. I’m sure it is within Neeson’s capability to be wry, we saw his talents put to use just last year in Silence, how just crushes it all down whenever he’s acting in the action realm. That’s probably a good thing, a gurning, mugging lead ain’t going to help anybody but when he’s flipping off a Wall Street banker on behalf of the ‘American middle class’ or dishing dating advice to a rebellious teen it don’t land.
Neither the script nor the direction could possibly live up to the weight with which our hero moves, or the tone in which he delivers every single pronouncement. And yet, I kinda love him for it. He’s just a tired (Irish) American man trying to get his shit together. Sure, once the film has done laying out it’s contrived puzzle and he’s solved the mystery set for him it doesn’t have too much to give. Then it drags on for another twenty minutes where the resolution is painfully obvious.
But, while we’re on the train and Neeson is playing detective for all the tension and chatter director, Jaume Collet-Serra, tries to inject into the picture, my main takeaway from it was the nice man solving an interesting puzzle. None of the classic Liam tricks work anymore, even when he’s openly threatening strangers he cannot escape from the sentient cloud of niceness that surrounds him. Even the beatdowns feel somewhat unreal, they obviously are trying to wring as much as they can outta the space and you can feel them reaching.
Let’s see, we spend time in the train, under the train, hanging onto the side of the train, and jumping from carriage to carriage as things start to go off the rails. In fact the only one that is conspicuously absent is the scene on top of the train, I’m betting that they figured it had been done too much before and there ain’t too much dramatic tension you can ring from just the one person on a train.
Even by the time we start to reach the end of the line and all the major characters have been condensed into one car for us to Poirot our way to a finale it doesn’t quite work. The insistent focus on Neeson don’t give any of the other actors opportunity to develop themselves aside from adopting a few notable tics. We don’t really even know who or what these people are, you’d need a whole other half hour for that so we’re undermining the mystery itself for the procedure of solving it.
Even that solution there is a bit of a cop out. It do the bad mystery thing of not giving you all the clues (Mister Police) so the revelation stops everything dead. All you got left is Vera Farmiga’s relatively bland character’s taunting voice on the phone, Patrick Wilson’s friendly cop (with questionable allegiance) and Sam Neill’s unfriendly cop (also with questionable allegiance). Guess which turns out good and which bad, it’s easy enough.
Yet despite all of that, I liked the movie. It’s trash but then, so am I so fuck it. Collet-Serra works up a fantastic sense of motion and progression the way he balances the ticking clock with the inevitable forward movement of a train towards its destination. I travel on trains a lot, there’s no cinema in my town and I don’t drive so it’s the only option. There’s something about travel with other people, that sense that time and space become meaningless, you’re in an abridged reality waiting to be reborn somewhere new and unfamiliar.
I’m not saying that this film captures literally any of that. You can watch Strangers on a Train or Before Sunrise, two films that elegantly describe the wonder and horror of train travel. I’m just a sucker for any film that has a train in it. Oh, and Neeson’s character spends the first ten minutes of the film getting fired and getting drunk. I was disappointed that he did not walk onto that train a pissed man. Would’ve made for a more intriguing flick, ah well.
What I’m really saying in 2020, Liam Neeson on a bus. I’m ready. Oh, wait. I realise we already have that movie, it’s called Speed and it’s a good film already.
The Commuter is currently screening in UK cinemas.
Images used courtesy of Lionsgate, credit Jay Maidment