The Commuter shoulda stayed home (a review)

Commuter poster

Liam Neeson is a special actor with a unique set of skills. Unfortunately, few of those skills are on display in The Commuter, his latest outing.

A thriller with few thrills, The Commuter tells us the story of a really unusual day in the life of insurance salesman Michael (Neeson) who meets a mystery woman (Vera Farmiga) during his commute home one evening. She presents him with an opportunity to make $100K if he takes on one little assignment, identifying someone who seems out of place.

Despite being an ex-cop and an intelligent person, Michael takes on the task, which quickly spirals out of control (else we have no movie) and the body count ratchets up. For most of the movie, we then watch an agitated Michael run, walk, crawl, slide and sidle up and down the commuter train, examining and re-examining the same passengers.

To tell you any more would be to present spoilers, but truthfully, this movie really can’t have any because the plot is largely telegraphed.

If you’ve seen Taken, you’ve seen this movie…and Taken was much better.

Forget driving a truck, you could drive a whole network of Amtrak trains through the plot holes in this story, which begins implausibly, becomes ridiculous and then gets downright silly. Had a dragon or demonic nun suddenly appeared, they would not have been out of place in this film.

I add demonic nun, by the way, because it seems there is a clause in Vera Farmiga’s contract that stipulates she must only appear in movies with her The Conjuring series co-star Patrick Wilson. I think it has something to do with the two actors having the dynamic range of granite countertops.

Commuter conjuring cast

At several points in the movie, Neeson’s Michael makes reference to his advancing age (he is 60 years old here), and all I kept thinking was “yes, and you should know better”. Despite no outward sign of an exercise regimen—“It’s either walk up and down the aisle or take up yoga.”—this character has the fighting skills of a Navy Seal half his age rather than what might be expected from a decade-long retired NYPD officer.

More broadly, if we ignore the general stupidity of the plot, this movie is a wonderful example of why it is so difficult to effectively tell a self-contained story; a story that takes place within a confined space over a defined period of time. Effectively, after the first few laps through the train, we’ve run out of new things to try.

I’ve tried talking to people. I’ve tried punching people. Now what? More of same, I guess, for the next 45 minutes.

In writing parlance, this is called “running in place” or “repeating beats”; a repetition of actions until complete boredom or a novel insight sets in. Without ham-fistedly introducing “screenwriter ex machina”, what is the poor protagonist to do?

We accept this challenge more easily in a film like Taken if only because the writer gives us new locations and different implementations of kicking ass. We get visual variety even if the actual action is effectively the same.

Confine characters to a single set, however, and that visual variety is eliminated. The plot repetition becomes more glaringly obvious.

There is a reason that most confined space films are shorts. It is truly challenging to reveal anything novel after more than 20 minutes.

If you’re heading out to the movies and this is your best option, stay on the train…and don’t talk to strangers.

Commuter Farmiga-Neeson

Side long

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It’s subtle, almost imperceptible;

The sense you’re being measured.

 

It’s not malicious; it may not be conscious,

And it’s not the metric of any ruler or scale.

Rather it’s based on history.

 

Not world history; not even your history,

But a history of pain and joy;

A history of violence and caresses;

A history of anticipation, both eager and dread.

 

It’s a measurement made during a moment’s pause;

Through a renegade lock of hair;

In a side-long glance rather than challenging stare.

 

We measure the people we meet,

Seeking solace that this one’s different,

Checking for warning echoes of past sorrows.

Hoping for the best. Wary of the worst.

 

I am measured. You are measured. And yet,

The result speaks more of the measurer than the measured.

Remembering Johnnie

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It was my nightly ritual, lying in bed in the dark listening to the radio.

Still in high school and living at home, I had finally exercised some autonomy by moving my bedroom to the basement of our townhouse, two full floors from the rest of the family. It was my sanctuary, surrounded by my books, my mattress resting on the floor, the sounds of Toronto’s 1050 CHUM filling the room, disturbing no one.

The music stopped, as it often would for commercial breaks, but this time for a news announcement. Odd for this time of night.

“Reports are coming in that John Lennon has been shot and killed outside of his Dakota apartment in New York City.”

The air then hung silent—for a moment, a minute, an hour, I can’t say for certain—and then the room filled with the simple piano chords that start the song Imagine.

I knew of John Lennon, at that point in my life. Knew his songs from years of listening to the radio.

And I was well aware of The Beatles; from their music, their movies and even the lesser remembered cartoon series of my childhood.

But where my awareness of John Lennon and The Beatles had been a passive thing up to that dark night of December 8, 1980, something changed in me upon learning that Lennon was dead. A fire to understand, to turn my awareness into knowledge, to experience more kindled inside me, overtaking me.

The world had lost a beautiful, elegant poet who I was later to learn could also be a fragile, ego-centric asshole.

The world had lost a magnificent artist who stood atop a mountain of pain, grief, anger, vindictiveness and sorrow.

And in a Lennon-esque stroke of irony, the world had lost a man who had finally come to grips with his frailties, who had finally learned to express love and not just demand it, who could offer his talents to the world as a gift and not a response.

Although at times I found myself worshipping John Lennon as a god, I now remember the artist as a man.

Later tonight, I will play Imagine and I will remember.

Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans.

Passing

Droids

When you walked by me tonight,

Did you see the holes in my jeans

Or see the whole of my being?

 

When you crossed the sidewalk,

Did you see the dirt on my face

Or witness the pain in my eyes?

 

When you whistled to yourself,

Did you hear the hack of my cough

Or consider the song in my heart?

 

When you looked away,

Did you see the tracks on my arms

Or the bruises of past abuse?

 

When you accelerated your step,

Did you smell the stench of urine

Or breathe the scent of possibility?

 

When you turned your back,

Did you dread unrestrained need

Or wonder at untapped potential?

 

When you blocked out my cries,

Did you fear the monster before you

Or lose the veil of your delusions?

 

When you walked by me tonight,

Did you think you could escape?

My truth is your truth.

 

Walk all you want;

The longer you walk,

The longer I remain.

Stranger

Curtained call

Rides

Tears carve channels

Through caked whiteness,

Intersecting painted smiles,

As limbs that juggled

And balanced on beams

Seem weighted and dead.

 

The music no longer plays,

Replaced by heavy silence

As tired hands wrestle

Cold cream jars and tissues.

The show has ended.

Only reality remains.

 

The face in the mirror

Beams gleefully back,

Yet the seated corpse

Sobs uncontrollably;

Everything left behind

On saw dusted floors.

 

If I give you everything,

Leave nothing for me,

How do I pass the night

Alone with this shell?

What can I be when

The clown is not here?

 

I frolicked; you smirked.

I stumbled; you laughed.

I collapsed; you roared.

I died; you applauded,

Departing for dull lives

As I melted to decay.

 

Who am I if not an

Echo of your delight?

As I remove my makeup,

Do I not erase myself?

Who will love the man

Who cries alone?

Hope

Choker

Silence pours forth

Where eloquence fails,

Unable to find words

When thoughts vanish.

Boiling with purpose,

I have no direction;

Faced with the inertia

Of fear and question.

 

My mind races on,.

Ready to reach out

A touch, a smile,

Connection desired.

You sit so close

That I feel your breath

On my very soul;

Yet mute is my song.

 

I can still see you,

Feel your musical heart,

Rest in your warmth,

Nestle in your voice.

You, me. One, all.

Easily experienced,

Soundlessly recalled,

Hopefully repeated.

Unknown

Kelp crow

Raven beckons me on a journey.

Its rasping voice pierces my spirit,

Pulling me to a future unknown.

 

Questions I ask, options propose,

Yet the ebon wraith remains evasive,

Demanding faith when will is weak.

 

What lies ahead in the darkness,

Where illusions of control are lost

And footing is no longer certain?

 

Raven ignores my fears, urges me forward.

When I look back for sights remembered,

His tar-pitched plumage absorbs my view.

 

With vision gone, I now see the unseeable:

The darkness that stills my timid heart

Is the freedom my soul has sought so long.

 

Where I am, light surrounds me;

Where I’m not, nothing exists.

I am the journey, unceasing while I live.

 

There is no stasis. There is no rest.

The raven that calls me is me;

And fear dissolves with my next step.