The biggest accomplishment of Non-Stop is using its hour and fifty minutes to prove how apt the title is. The film, an airborne mystery thriller, is a non-stop barrage of ridiculous plotting, highlighted all too frequently by half-hearted attempts at distractions and red herrings. It is, in fact, so determined to sleight the audience that it makes every single character, including the protagonist, somehow appear guilty. It continues right up until the real guilty party is finally exposed and an explanation is provided. This would be fine, except it’s obvious at that point that the film has gone a long way for very little, and in taking that long way slowly reveals a needlessly convoluted scheme that isn’t in any way plausible.
And incidentally, how is it possible that not one, but two supporting cast members from 12 Years a Slave ended up in supporting roles for this film?
The story centers on Bill Marks (Liam Neeson), a U.S. federal air marshall. It’s established in the opening shot that he’s an alcoholic, and that his relationship with his unseen daughter is probably not where it should be. These, and other character flaws not made known until the last third, were intentionally included to complicate and make us question the events that unfold on a non-stop flight from New York to London. It begins when Marks begins receiving text messages, which plainly spell out that, unless $150 million is transferred into a very specific bank account, a passenger will be killed every twenty minutes. Who’s sending the texts? Marks will spend a great deal of time glowering at the passengers, who are, with the help of ominous camera angles and the score by John Ottman, made to appear as incriminatingly as possible.
It’s somewhat akin to an Agatha Christie whodunit; a group of characters find themselves in a confined space, and when the wheels are set in motion and bad things start to happen, they all have their turn at being a suspect, just as they all have a reason to point the finger at someone else. Let’s consider the major characters. There’s Jen Summers (Julianne Moore), who has a scar on her chest, one that just barely peeks out of the neckline of her blouse. Why does she insist on trading seats so she can sit directly next to a window? Why is she so social with a man Marks? Is it to distract him? There’s a passenger named Tom Bowen (Scoot McNairy). Before even stepping inside the terminal, he asks Marks where he’s heading, and freely informs him that he’s heading for Amsterdam. Why would he want to know Marks’ destination?
There’s a fellow air marshall named Jack Hammond (Anson Mount), who seems just a little too attached to his phone and appears somewhat jittery. There’s flight attendant Nancy Hoffman (Michelle Dockery), who can never look at Marks without the most curious of expressions, suggesting she knows more than she actually does. There’s the tough New York City cop (Corey Hawkins) with a hair-trigger reaction to everything, especially Marks’ increasingly suspicious behaviors. There’s even the Middle Easterner (Omar Metwally), and there’s no need to guess why he’s considered a suspect. It should be noted, though, that he’s a doctor, and even tries to assist when two people aboard the plane, whose identities will not be revealed by me, mysteriously get violently ill then die.
But we cannot forget about Marks himself. Indeed, his superiors on the ground quickly determine that the bank account to which the money must be transferred is under his name. We already know he’s an alcoholic, but it will take some time before a key event in his past is revealed, one so emotionally traumatizing that it could have conceivably altered his mental state. It isn’t long before all the TV monitors on the plane show news footage about Marks, convincing everyone on board that he’s a terrorist and a hijacker. Is this the case? The very nature of the film is to keep us guessing – or perhaps second-guessing is a more appropriate terms, since we’re repeatedly made to feel one way about someone and then to question those very feelings when someone else enters the picture.
Isn’t it odd, how the person or persons responsible for these crimes are obviously on board the plane, and yet the TSA was able to clear everyone on the passenger list with a background check? Isn’t it odder still, that Marks will look at video monitors in search of passengers using cell phones, and every time he spots a suspicious-looking person, the plane hits a pocket of turbulence? The latter cannot possibly be part of the elaborate scheme that’s eventually uncovered, given who would have to be involved and the very laws of aerodynamics. It can only be a dramatic device, included for the sole intent of making the scene more suspenseful. The issue with movies like Non-Stop is that they’re less concerned with storytelling and more concerned with artifice. We’re being toyed with, until the moment comes when playtime is over and we’re tossed aside.
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