Jaume Collett-Serra, the mathematician, the physicist, the secret philosopher, works better with infinite space in which to perform equations. His ‘bottle’ movies, where Liam Neeson is trapped in a small location with an Agatha Christie conspiracy to ferret out, show off his formal capabilities and fixations, but not his strengths. A fight scene and a train crash can no longer use Liam Neeson as anything other than a kind of stop-motion blur. So it’s probably a head-banging conundrum for Collet-Serra agnostics why a handful of critics consider his work so irresistible and satisfying. They see the movies he appears to be making, instead of the bone dry parody set in a blue screen netherworld that he’s placed just below the surface of our immediate perception. You need only watch the ending to The Commuter to understand precisely what he thinks of the subject matter he works with. At least as anything other than a stage door to the world he knows. A comically large exhale, the conclusion of his new movie finds every survivor of a nightmarish ordeal hugging their families, asking each other on dates, insisting the word “hero” go into a police report, making jokes and graciously shaking hands and smiling. It’s entirely too huge to be serious. You can practically see the Catalan whiz standing behind the monitor trying not to laugh. And that isn’t even the whole ending, it gets even hammier and smirks even more broadly for a final reveal. They look like regular movies, but they are not.
Collet-Serra’s work does occasionally get down to the business of being ordinary, of satisfying what viewers have come to the mall and paid 20 dollars to watch. Trains, planes, and automobiles are crashed. Guns are fired. Liam Neeson shouts and scowls. But where the director comes alive is in the choreography of a camera, of the calculus problems presented by his scripts. The Commuter is about probability, using variables to determine the value of X. How many passengers over what distance could plausibly be the witness to a murder committed by corrupt police? Collet-Serra’s process is usually a little more engrossing and involved, as in Run All Night (2015), where he turns an entire phantom city into a grid and builds it with his camera like he’s test-running experimental architectural software. The Commuter is a companion to Non-Stop (2014), which found Neeson, a drunk air marshal, looking for bombers among the passengers of a commercial flight. Neeson is a tipsy ex-cop on a train upstate from Manhattan in The Commuter, paid by an insistent stranger (Vera Farmiga) to find a witness. He has only a fake name, Prin, and a destination to go by. Neeson begins making a spectacle of himself trying to launch an investigation into which of the passengers is his target while the shadowy organization Farmiga works for starts killing people all around him, basically just to show him they mean business. He has about an hour before the train reaches its destination, at which point either the witness or Neeson’s family will have been killed.
The film begins with a tour de force deconstruction of reality, proof that we’re descending into the filmmaker's imaginary blue screen purgatory. Neeson wakes up, gets coffee, talks to his son about classic literature, kvetches with his wife about money, gets on his train to work, says hello to the regulars on the train, and goes to work. Collet-Serra and editor Nicolas De Toth (son of one-eyed genius André, who had a similar sense of abject irony when making his genre films in the 50s and 60s), show about a half-dozen variations of every piece of Neeson’s morning ritual, each one asking us to trust less and less about what we’re being told. The scenes of normality on repeat is a way to alert us to the coming disruption. This is what Neeson thinks is real. Like a slow-mo, Peter Tscherkassky-style loop, the more we see of his life, the less we trust and start to look past the image. Every variation tells us to ignore the incident and dialogue or to look past it to what it’s signifying, to treat his life like a monotonous trap, essentially to be on guard for the break in our understanding of his life. Collet-Serra is asking us to get excited for the murder and intrigue that’s about to happen, because it’s got to break up the patterns. He has Neeson turn into a detective again, but more to the point (and because Neeson can never ever just fit in in these movies, he’s 8 feet tall and jumping out of his skin like a coked-up hall monitor) he has him turn into a sort of grim actuary. He talks to the possible suspects and weighs whether it’s worth it for him to create a disruption, to tamper with the ‘rules’ laid down by Farmiga’s operator, watching him like a god and punishing him for putting a hair out of place.
That sense of cosmic punishment, of being literally and figuratively trapped (on a plane, a train, or a blood-feud), is key to Collet-Serra’s cinema. Going as far back as House of Wax (2005), where his heroes are encased in wax, forced painfully into the shape of other people, he sees identity as treacherously fluid and able to be corrupted. Unknown (2011) has Neeson’s identity removed and replaced and so he tries to reassert it violently. Conspiracy is a through-line in the filmmaker's work, because it’s his version of theology. Gods are out to trick us and steal from us, to take what we know—which is why the scenes of Neeson’s morning ritual are so important. In just a few minutes Serra has told us that though Neeson looks happy, his life is still just a series of minor variations on the same theme. He’s broke in all of them. The only things that change are the books he and his son read. He can live vicariously through different works of fiction, but it’s only when Farmiga-as-god corrupts the design of his life that he becomes as interesting as the stories he reads. She’s reading The Count of Monte Cristo when Neeson finds her in the final moments of the film, but the scene they’re enacting is the conclusion to Fernando Arrabal’s Architect and the Emperor of Assyria. Neeson is the emperor now and Farmiga the architect. Collet-Serra, like Arrabal, is an anarchist who flirts with the absurd—make no mistake, there is no plausible way any of his movies work in our world. There is nothing outside the blue screen windows of his world. His happy endings are not meant to be trusted, because to what ultimately is Neeson returning? The same scenes of his life, over and over, until death. This must ultimately be why the director keeps casting Neeson in all of these movies. He’s the same man with a new identity, forever trapped in a world over which he has no control. A happy ending is the only thing more absurd than a train to hades crashing, exploding and somehow sparing Neeson, a sexagenarian old growth tree of a man, from death. He needs to survive to return to the prison of his life. The chaos is always more comforting.