[28 February 2014]
PopMatters Film and TV Editor
The best idea in Non-Stop is the plane. This means the space is tight and the camera is close, in particular, close on Liam Neeson’s face.
It’s brilliant, really. No matter the preposterous plot, which pits Neeson’s Bill Marks, a US air marshal, against a vengeful, anonymous hijacker who might be one of 150 passengers on a flight from New York to London. And no matter the predictable types who make up those passengers, from the suspicious city cop to the kid with headphones to the anxious businessman, not to mention the adorable little girl and the other kid determined to record the chaos on his iPhone, or the sensible pilot who suspects that Bill’s unhappy-past-leading-to-his-drinking-on-the-job is making him less than dependable. All of this turns irrelevant when you’re looking at Neeson’s face, so battered, so despondent, so essentially decent.
Bill’s first appearance in the film is a close-up, cramped in his parked car at the airport, dreading the job, downing liquor and a spritz of mouthwash spray. You know and he knows this is a sad charade, his misery underscored by a cryptic phone-argument with his boss, impatience with fellow passengers, mournful looks at couples kissing. And oh yes, the inevitable stop in the bathroom so Bill can gaze into the mirror. All of these close looks at Bill’s face before he even gets on the plane, when he’s still in the relatively expansive space of the terminal, sets up for the ride to follow, as Bill scans the passengers or looks toward the cockpit, frets and fumes about texted threats from the villain.
These messages soon start hanging in the air around him, a clunky gimmick that lets you watch his face and see what he’s reading at the same time. They lay out a series of dares, that unless the airline deposits $150 million into an account, the someone will die every 20 minutes. The means by which these murders occur are silly and implausible enough so they’re not precisely predictable, but again, they’re less interesting than Bill’s reactions. His brow furrows, his jaw tenses, his eyes narrow and go wide. He never even thinks about smiling—though he’s perhaps charmed by friendly Jen (Julianne Moore), seated next to him in First Class, and though he shares something like trust with head flight attendant Nancy (Michelle Dockery)—but instead simmers and grumbles and intimidates, slipping into the bathroom in order to commit a couple of federal crimes, by tampering with the smoke detector and sucking on a cigarette.
While he wears his worry like a costume, Bill is, of course, an able action hero. Though, much like Neeson’s other action heroes, he shows effort when he runs, displeasure when he shoots, and consternation when, as happens repeatedly here, his actions don’t pan out. These errors have the sorts of inconsequential consequences that action movies favor: Bill thinks he’s made a discovery but hasn’t quite, leading more or less directly to a death; he’s plagued by uncontrollable technologies, as passengers see watch live news reports that he’s the “alleged” hijacker; he’s told he must give up his badge and gun, then directly finds another set, without apparent second thought because He Knows He’s Right. But even as Bill is committing all this noisy but surprisingly unnoticed mayhem, you’re less inclined to focus on his flailing limbs than on his perpetually uneasy face.
In this, you’re not unlike Jen or Nancy, who spend endless seconds in different scenes searching Bill’s face, as if a long enough look will reveal what they hope to find, that he is indeed competent, sober enough, and sane. That this is actually difficult to read leaves the ladies off-balance, but trusting in their own instincts, so that even when authorities determine that he’s gone over a line or that he’s “paranoid,” or that he is himself the hijacker, they hold off, and take up for Bill even when he gives them a hard time, suspecting them or, in the case of Jen, calling her ‘ma’am.” “Did you just call me ‘ma’am’!?” she asks more than once, affronted but also willing, at last to forgive this lunkhead for his gaffe.
In another movie, Jen and Nancy’s faith might make you feel assured. That’s not exactly the case here. It’s not that you don’t know Bill is as right as he knows he is. You don’t know quite why or how, though, and as you see ambiguity and doubt and awkwardness in Neeson’s face, you can never be quite certain what they mean. It helps that he’s surrounded by so many other great faces (say, Scoot McNairy’s, Corey Stoll’s, and Corey Hawkins’), but its Bill’s face that offers the most commotion.
For all its extraordinary expressivity, Non-Stop is less a map of such plotty points than it is a set of possibilities. When Bill listens to Jen or pontificates, so earnestly, to the skeptical pilot (Linus Roache) or sits alone in the bathroom and yawns—his face is elastic and vast, surprising and familiar. Odd to say, but that yawn, huge and weird, might be the most wonderful moment in Non-Stop. It comes out of nowhere and everywhere, the response of a man who’s been through too much and yet will go on through more.