In the opening credit sequence of The Commuter, we’re immediately being fed the authentic scenarios of what it’s like for a middle-class American to rise at 6AM, and commute to a daily grind of a nine to five shift, and then commute back home. With kinetic jump-cuts through seasons and several years, we are given conversations that are somewhat linked to each other, but, more-or-less present on-screen to provide the gist of Michael McCauley’s life and what he cares about most; his wife and his son. Liam Neeson (The Prey, Taken) is McCauley, a former NYPD detective turned Life Insurance salesman, who commutes day-in and day-out to his office in a suit, where he gives sales pitches to young married couples and makes inauthentic life insurance policy remarks to his secretary in the form of acronyms that appear so artificial and scream to us in the audience, “I know about life insurance!” When, one questions whether-or-not the writer has the slightest clue what a day in the life of a life insurance salesman is like. Even if he does, it doesn’t matter because this is not a movie about a life insurance salesman. McCauley is a diligent family man. After he’s done giving life insurance pitches to the newly married, he must provide for his own family, but, can’t because the government criminal conspiracy he’s about to get caught between begins, when he’s fired by his boss, just five years shy of being fully vested in the company for his retirement in residuals.
The film’s director, Jaume Collet-Serra (Non-Stop, Run All Night) does a proper piece-of-work in the opening of the film, jam-packing loads of information to get the hint across to the audience that, our hero’s real life is what he spends less time of his day attending to: breakfast and dinner with his wife and son and the responsibility he holds himself accountable for, in the matters of their family for the love he has for his wife and the importance of which school his son should attend for college. The bulk of his day – or any middle-class American on the daily grind living the the American dream – is merely a means to an end. The real life of a commuter is what he or she does on weekends which begins after 5PM on a Friday and ends at 9AM on a Monday. Everything from Monday thru Friday is a daily routine essential to maintain Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs.
The cinematographer of The Commuter is none other than Paul Cameron (Man on Fire, Collateral) who does a phenomenal job of giving us a wide variety of creative angles to witness this adventure take place without experiencing boredom, considering ninety-five percent of the film occurs in the interiors of a moving train. There are many extreme close-up shots on McCauley’s face, with first-rate lighting techniques, in conjunction with slow-motion and an insistent score, that give the authentic effect of a genuine emotional reaction amid the dire consequences McCauley is trapped in. In the first act of the film, McCauley gets terminated from his job as a salesman; Paul Cameron, the director of photography, gets extremely close to McCauley’s face, where we view the emotional turmoil and shock that wave through his mind, as he says himself, multiple times in the film, that, he’s a sixty-year-old man, five years away from retirement and what purpose will he serve to his wife and son, having been terminated from a second career? To this notion, McCauley avoids informing his wife the negative news and meets up at a Cops bar, with his former partner on the force, Alex Murphy, in a role performed by Patrick Wilson (Stretch, Insidious). It is here where we learn McCauley is former officer with the NYPD, as he’s greeted by his former Captain, Hawthorne (Sam Neill), who utters law enforcement platitudes used too often to be considered interesting or thoughtful. Hawthorne asks Murphy, “Can I have a word with you?” To which I paraphrase Lieutenant Murphy’s response, “I just worked a back-to-back twelve hour, it can wait.” Firstly, Patrick Wilson’s expression as Lieutenant Murphy looks absolutely nothing like a real working man’s face would appear, after serving his community for two back-to-back overtime shifts. Secondly, Captain Hawthorne agrees to his refusal for a ‘word’, and, we never learn what the ‘word’ would have been, which, clearly points to only one direction: poor dialogue in the screenplay. The script is filled with all the structural elements a contemporary script would and should have; like a double reversal where we realize that a supporting character, who’s one of the good guys, ends up being one of the bad guys in the end, or when both the villain and the hero learn from each other at the climax of the final act. McCauley inadvertently ‘drops’ his smart phone as he ‘bumps’ into a random passerby when he’s rushing to catch his train before he ‘misses’ it, giving him the ever-so cliché moment we’ve seen as a commonplace in the history of cinema: “Oh no! I dropped my phone! Now I can’t communicate with anyone for the rest of the movie!” Another substandard structural tactic by the writers to add to the second-rate dialogue, resulting in a plot rampant with excessive instances in the script that seem to be forcefully penciled in, to take our hero in the direction that the formulaic screenplay requires.
Perhaps, someone who commutes to work for ten years like McCauley, recognizes the ‘regulars’ on the train and builds conversations with them. Any true commuter of a train in any metropolitan American city knows that the passengers rarely speak to each other and keep to themselves, especially in a gigantic city like New York; how can a daily commuter logically recognize regulars when its statistically estimated that over 5.5 million people ride the subway in NYC everyday which adds up to about 1.7 billion riders per year? But, of course, not for the eyes and mind of Liam Neeson, he recognizes all the regulars, and if you’re not on his list of familiar faces, you’re a suspect! A suspect for what? An unintelligent, unnecessarily twisted plot fueled Neeson’s goal throughout the entire train ride of the movie: find the person on the train who’s not supposed to be on it. The grand prize? $100,000. Who hired him for the task? The very lovely Vera Farmiga (Running Scared, The Departed).
Paul Cameron’s work as cinematographer proved to be nothing short of his caliber of work. When McCauley gets terminated, he slowly steps outside of the building and the camera is raised high to an overhead shot, as if it’s the point-of-view of God looking down directly at him. To strategically use this shot here, as opposed to a medium, or another extreme close-up, the viewer subconsciously realizes that there is a greater force at work here. Whether it’s the conspiracy he’s tied up in as a trap, or, a divine force looking down, reminding us that we’re always being watched by the eyes-in-the-sky.
The film’s editing used a style that was off-pace with its timing and called attention to itself, causing us to be taken out of the film’s story, only to be immersed back into it by Paul Cameron’s fantastic cinematography. The entire film felt like each shot was being cut a split second too soon or too late, resulting in a graceless rhythm of what could have been a much better film, had it been given more adept editing techniques to match the skillful artistry behind the film’s cinematography. Paul Cameron’s camera movements are necessary for an action/adventure train movie, where everything is rowdy and constantly moving forward. But, it’s where we’re given frenetic editing movements in conjunction with these camera movements that results in a movie that never slows down.
What’s disheartening is that the entire film is played as a narrative structure in real time, from the point-of-view of our hero, Liam Neeson. When, suddenly, Collet-Serra decides to throw in images that are given to us as live news coverage. There’s no point being made here by the director, that, there’s a news team with coverage on the train. Do we really need to hear a news reporter’s voice over a faux television station’s logo on the silver screen of a movie? The audience is not being paid to watch television and it’s condescending to the viewer that, something of this magnitude wouldn’t be covered by the news. The audience gets it: there’s helicopters in the air; if it’s not the police, it’s probably news choppers. Perhaps, this device is strategically used to give Jaume Collet-Serra and Nicolas De Toth, the editor, a shot to cut to. Filmmaking is a difficult exercise.
In a clever move, McCauley strategically dismantles the air conditioning units in all the cars on the train except for one, forcing all the remaining guests on the train to move to one car before the infamous “Cold Spring” station stop, so that McCauley can finally single out his target through the process of elimination. So that he can detect and uncover who the culprit is, on the basis of the ridiculous and absurd notion that because he’s been commuting for ten years, he knows who is and isn’t a regular on the train that travels to and from the epicenter of the known universe, New York City. This only leads one to believe that, perhaps, along with the intelligent books the character’s read, the makers of The Commuter are fans of Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express, a classic ‘whodunit’ mystery, in which this case, The Commuter turns into a ‘whohasit’ mystery. Has what? A package containing evidence that McCauley must find, before, wait for it…the bad guys kill his family. Yes, that’s right, The Commuter may as well be Taken 4. Don’t mess with Liam Neeson’s family. He’s gonna find out whodunit, whohasit, and he’s gonna whip ya bootie. He’s a bad ass former cop with a badge and a gun turned hu$tler in$urnce $ale$man in a suit on a train ride home who’s been fired from both professions only to be tricked into a government conspiracy. To be fair, The Commuter delivers on what it promises: an adventurous train ride with an “ordinary” man that is Liam Neeson, who, can’t seem to stop talking on cell phones in movies while attempting to save his family.