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Jaume Collet-Serra Has a Special Set of Skills

The director of the new Liam Neeson action thriller, ‘The Commuter,’ might be Hollywood’s best genre filmmaker

Liam Neeson looking concerned in ‘The Commuter’ Lionsgate/Ringer illustration

Good filmmaking can happen anywhere and anytime, even during the new-release graveyard of January, when devoted movie buffs are supposed to be catching up with all the award contenders they missed over the holidays. For instance, the credit sequence of The Commuter displays more technical ingenuity and artistic imagination than many of the movies that came away with Golden Globes last Sunday. (This is probably damning with faint praise).

Jolted awake at dawn by the chatter of his bedside clock radio alarm, insurance salesman Michael MacCauley (Liam Neeson) stretches and greets the day. One slow but jarring dissolve later, he’s doing the exact same thing, but it’s another morning—and then another and another, all laid out in a row. Think Bill Murray’s purgatory in Groundhog Day, except that here, the calendar is actually flipping forward. Each new step in his morning routine sends us hurtling forward in time. In the space of five brilliantly edited minutes, we move steadily through a decade’s worth of family breakfasts, bickering, and drives to the upstate train station where MacCauley catches the morning express to Manhattan.

The melancholy eloquence of the storytelling here is beyond what you’d expect from a movie being sold as the latest variation on “what if Liam Neeson, but punching things?” And yet it’s precisely because we’re so used to the actor’s axiomatic action-movie status that The Commuter’s overture works so well. There’s something universal about feeling caught in the rat race, and it’s also a bit of a self-reflexive joke on Neeson’s career shift in the nine years since Taken. MacCauley’s solid, clock-punching reliability as his office’s most ethical operator mirrors the actor’s run as the weary face of unpretentious, mid-budget thrillers. (Anybody who had the man who played Oskar Schindler turning into the new Charles Bronson, raise your hand).

The grimness of Neeson’s star persona can sometimes make it seem like he is just going through the motions; luckily, he’s been smart enough to keep working with a director whose command of genre conventions is automatic without feeling mechanical. The Commuter is the latest collaboration between Neeson and the gifted Catalan filmmaker Jaume Collet-Serra, whose inauspicious Hollywood debut in 2005 with House of Wax (the one with Paris Hilton) started a run of effective, occasionally ingenious thrillers. There was the bad-taste classic Orphan (a film whose best sequences have a startling, graphic clarity worthy of Brian De Palma at his most ruthless) to last year’s surprise hit The Shallows, a superbly executed beauty-vs.-the-beast piece with echoes of Jaws.

Collet-Serra isn’t a maverick or a visionary, and he doesn’t write his own scripts; he’s not an above-the-title auteur. But on a shot-for-shot, cut-for-cut basis, his films vibrate with the invention and imagination of a true artist. In Unknown, where Neeson plays an amnesiac American embroiled in reheated Cold War intrigue in Berlin, the plot is perfunctory, but Collet-Serra develops a running motif of walls being broken through or blown apart that perfectly suits the script’s theme of false surfaces and submerged motivation.

Non-Stop, which takes place aboard an airplane in mid-flight (and gives Neeson’s air marshal a whodunnit he has to solve before the wheels come down) features subtly astonishing floating camerawork that’s far less self-conscious than the zero-G grandstanding of Gravity. Neeson shepherds his son, played by Joel Kinnaman, through a New York City crawling with potential mob assassins in Run All Night. He is steely and determined in an old-school ‘70s way, even as the use of infrared laser sights during an apartment complex siege keeps turning the screen into a flashing, color-coded abstract canvas.

What I’m saying is Collet-Serra is a filmmaker with vivid ideas, and he can realize them even while he’s coloring inside the lines. The relentless cutting in The Commuter’s prologue establishes a focus on forward momentum that just keeps accelerating once we see MacCauley in Manhattan. No sooner has he gotten to work than he’s informed that he’s lost his job. A sublime detail: As he’s being told why he doesn’t warrant a severance package, his boss’s dialogue blends with what sounds like a train moving through a tunnel—cash-strapped and drowning in college application forms for his son, all he knows is he’s being left behind.

At 60, MacCauley doesn’t have much of a future ahead of him, but it’s his past that gets the plot moving. A midday drinking session with an old pal (Patrick Wilson) reveals that MacCauley used to be a cop (and, this being a Liam Neeson movie, we know he was a good, tough, decent one). On the train home, he’s approached by a mystery woman (Vera Farmiga) who knows his professional history and asks him to use his (wait for it) special set of skills to seek out and identify a passenger who “doesn’t belong.” This cryptic mission is presented as a thought experiment, with a hypothetical financial reward, hinging on the idea that it shouldn’t matter who the other person is or what they’ve done: All our hero has to do to get rich—and get his, so soon after it’s been arbitrarily taken away from him—is to demonstrate some good, old-fashioned American self-interest.

The means by which MacCauley is ultimately compelled to act as his seatmate’s pawn are, again, easy to see coming for anybody who has ever watched a movie. This is not exactly reinventing the wheel. But the way Collet-Serra orchestrates things works against the feeling that we’ve seen it all before. For the better part of an hour, The Commuter focuses on MacCauley walking back and forth through train compartments, desperately looking for clues—objects, clothing, gestures, behaviors—that will lead him to somebody he’s never met. It’s a scenario that, in effect, turns the audience into detectives; we scrutinize each new face extra carefully even though we’re not sure what we’re looking for.

The air is thick with paranoia—especially MacCauley’s own—but the wonderful surprise of The Commuter is how it gradually develops into a parable of solidarity. From its title on down, it’s a movie that sympathizes with the feeling of being a cog in a machine and working for somebody else’s benefit. There’s a great moment when the train’s most obnoxious passenger is revealed to be a broker for Goldman Sachs—and gets told to fuck off accordingly. In moral terms, it’s a film about a man whose momentary monetary temptation endangers himself and everybody around him. Suffice it to say, there are some bad people on the train, positioned to make sure that MacCauley earns his dirty money, and equipped to punish him if he tries to get off or contact the authorities.

Because the gimmickry of the plot is so shameless, and because Neeson is so good at conveying a sense of urgency in his acting (and also at punching people, which he starts doing at regular intervals about halfway through the movie), it’s possible to forget how amazing The Commuter is as a technical accomplishment—which is just how Collet-Serra, with his mostly self-effacing mastery, wants it. There is a solid hour of this movie in which nearly every shot includes passing landscapes seen through open windows, and the sense of momentum—on both a narrative and a visual level—is never once interrupted.

When MacCauley gets on a cell phone and calls his ex-partner for help, we get an extended view of the woods at sunset behind him—a lyrical image in the middle of so much tough, brutal violence. As in Non-Stop, the director isn’t above using digital trickery to extend shots or occupy impossibly tight spaces, but it’s done in the best David Fincher tradition. And Fincher’s fleet, uncluttered, commercial-but-not-mercenary presentation may be the best comparison for Collet-Serra’s own developing aesthetic. (And even if not, that opening montage definitely reminded me of episode two of Mindhunter: Time keeps on slipping into the future).

It’d be nice to call The Commuter a masterpiece and call it a day, but it’s not quite that simple—or rather, the resolution, when it comes down to it, is a bit too simple for the complex, sophisticated style that’s been applied to it. Because it’s so rare to find a thriller that ends as well as it begins, The Commuter’s own problems (of predictability and credibility) in the home stretch don’t damage it too badly, but because Collet-Serra is generally so good at what he does, it’s important to hold him to a high standard. And if more than a couple of other action movies get even close to this level in 2018, it’ll be a very good year.