The Commuter marks Jaume Collet-Serra’s fourth collaboration with Liam Neeson and, by this stage, they’ve settled into an easy and effortless rapport with each other. While Neeson has taken on a variety of roles in the last half decade, no director has managed to tap into his post-Taken persona quite like Collet-Serra, while no actor has managed to so consistently draw out Collet-Serra’s major obsession either – namely, the fate of public space in an era of mass surveillance and digital culture, and the fate of the mid-range blockbuster that Collet-Serra has so emphatically carved out as his own. Both of those concerns are eloquently articulated in The Commuter, which takes place ten years after the Global Financial Crisis, but still feels saturated with a GFC sense of depressive morbidity. Against that milieu, Neeson plays an insurance agent, Michael MacCauley, who is made redundant after just managing to get his life together in the wake of the 2008 crash, and has to face the prospect of telling his wife Karen (Elizabeth McGovern) and son Danny (Dean-Charles Chapman) that they’re going to have to liquidate their assets all over again. Before he has a chance to do so, however, he’s met by a mysterious woman, played by Vera Farmiga, on his commute home from work, who promptly tells him that he has to find the one person who “doesn’t belong” on the train and identify them, or risk losing wife and son.
As that might suggest, the majority of the plot takes place on Michael’s commuter line, which stretches from Grand Central Station to his home in upstate New York. While there are various side plots that happen along the way, including his relationship with a fellow commuter played by Jonathan Banks, and his previous life as a police officer (former colleagues are played by Patrick Wilson and Sam Neill), the film takes place in its near entirety on board the evening train, as the mystery woman tells Michael that he has until Cold Spring to find the person who doesn’t belong and identify him or her in a discrete way. In the process, it becomes painfully clear that commuting is one of the few spaces in American culture where a public sphere still exists in a really emphatic way, thanks in part to the size and breadth of American urban sprawls, which turn commuting from upstate and out-of-state into a matter of course. At the same time, commuting is one of the few places where people from different social classes and ethnic groups rub shoulders for a sustained length of time, which is perhaps why The Commuter often feels like a neighbourhood film as much as a surveillance thriller, with the entire city seeming to compress into Michael’s carriage. Suffused with the gritty, grimy ambience of public transit infrastructure, it increasingly feels as if the train and the underground stations it services have fused into a single space – a space that moves people, but also a space people move through in turn.
That combination creates a lack of net movement, or a sense of movement without progression, as Collet-Serra evokes all Michael’s endless commutes back and forth in his continuous dolly zooms, which offset the motion of the train and render all movement relative, making it difficult, at times, to discern whether it is the train or landscape around it that is moving. The sense of frustrated movement is only enhanced by the privileged position this particular commuter line has tended to occupy in depictions of the post-GFC world, from the existential angst of Happyish to the Gothic morbidity of The Jinx – an inexorable sense that the good times have passed, the hamlets of upstate New York have been alarmingly thrust into the precarious bustle of Downtown Manhattan, and the GFC is destined to have a cyclical impact, and return to haunt its victims in unexpected ways. No surprise, then, that the tension of The Commuter is minutely tied to the progression of the train, with each station from 86 Street onwards forming a critical threshold in the evolution of the narrative and Michael’s gradual realisation that the mysterious woman’s aim is to identify a witness to the murder of a minor public servant from the Department of Planning.
As the film proceeds, then, public space isn’t simply measured in terms of solidarity but scrutiny, since if public transit is one of the few places where people of different classes can rub shoulders, it’s also one of the few places where people can observe other people – indeed, are forced to observe other people – up close and for a sustained period of time. Over the last decade and a half – almost since the beginning of the digital era – that’s turned the commuter into something of an archetypal figure, and almost a superhero, but never as emphatically as occurs here, as Neeson’s action sequence grow far more cartoon-like than in any of his previous collaborations with Collet-Serra, occasionally approaching an Arnie-level of wry hyperbole (“He got off”) but without ever quite losing their gritty plausibility either. Insofar as this commuter is a superhero, it’s in his dual roles of promulgating public space and defending the city against public space – that is, protecting the city from itself, and from its own public sphere. While we know the victim was from the Department of Planning, we never quite find out why he was murdered, nor the spatial scheme that motivated the murder, but that’s part of the point, with the import of an entire urban conspiracy brought to bear on the public space that Michael has to police, embrace and defend, as his efforts to find that one person who doesn’t quite “fit” coalesces around the Western trope of guaranteeing safe escort of a witness through a treacherous journey.
In other words, if the commuter has become an archetypal figure, then it’s only because he is a schizoid figure – and that schizoid quality schisms Collet-Serra’s conception of space as the film proceeds. So saturated is the train with scrutiny that it leaves no stable space from which Michael himself can be an observer, meaning that he always finds himself too scrutinised to pick the “right” person, while his obsessive scrutiny just renders him more visible and vulnerable in turn. Underground, the light is always dim, above ground, the setting sun precludes any clear sightline, and outdoors, the sense of space is too frantic and frenetic for Michael – and Neeson – to ever feel centred in the film, producing strange tableaux in which observation and the objects of observation are increasingly jettisoned from each other. In one especially strange moment, Michael arrives at the train to find himself confronted with a security check before he gets on. It’s at this point that his SmartPhone is stolen – a critical factor in the mysterious woman’s plans – but the most haunting part of the scene is an anonymous man, with a briefcase, heading back from the checkpoint, while telling someone on the phone that they can’t go through with their plans.
It’s never entirely clear what this small moment is meant to mean, since it could either be a part of the mysterious woman’s plan (to blow up the train with the witness on board) or part of a completely unrelated terrorist plan. In either case, what’s unusual is that this man turning back never registers to the authorities – or to other people – as a potential source of scrutiny or even suspicion. Instead, the scrutiny of public space appears to have reached a point at which it has eclipsed and obscured the very things it was searching for, creating strange pockets of dead space in which it is impossible to fully see what is occurring, but also impossible to fully evade the sight of those who also happen to be in them. In a milieu so saturated with observation, and the experience of being observed, no single or stable point of observation is possible, and so, right up until the end, it’s not clear whether Michael is aligned with the observers or the observed, as the very people who seem to observing with him turn out to be observing him, and those being observed turn out to be observers.
As might be expected, that inability to conceive of a stable point of narrative omniscience produces a relative disinterest in narrative continuity, and yet this isn’t a lazy film in terms of narrative structure either. Instead, Collet-Serra opts for what can only be called an anti-authoritarian visual and narrative scheme, unfolding one weird tableau after another in which stuff is happening in the established space of scrutiny, but nobody is there to fully scrutinise it – or, more simply, stuff is happening, and people are watching for stuff happening, but the two simply don’t intersect. The result is a surveillance thriller with no single point of surveillance – even in theory – and a conclusion that only raises more questions, but doesn’t quite seem intended for a sequel or continuation either. Indeed, the “answer” to the film doesn’t come in narrative terms at all, but in terms of the affirmation of collective sight that ends the train siege – a realisation, on Michael’s part, that the only way to wrest back some control of scrutiny is to disregard the possibility of a single vantage point altogether and instead focus on a collectively produced sightline and truth. It’s the same message that, in a different kind of way, brought The Shallows to such a thrilling denouement, and just as experimental and flamboyant in the route it takes to arrive there.