Film Review – A Walk Among The Tombstones
A Walk Among The Tombstones
The era of “Badass Liam Neeson” continues with A Walk Among The Tombstones (2014). Unlike his previous outings, this is not a high-octane action film. It’s quieter, a bit more methodical, and although Neeson does traverse familiar territory in terms of performance, there is something else going on here. Scott Frank takes the reigns as screenwriter and director, adapting Lawrence Block’s novel. If you remember, Frank also wrote and directed The Lookout (2007), an underrated crime drama starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt. We’re in a similar universe here, with characters shifting between good and bad, trying to escape past transgressions, etc., all revolving around some type of criminal activity.
Frank makes it clear he’s going for a modern noir tale. Liam Neeson’s character, Matt Scudder, is an ex-New York police officer turned private investigator. Fighting off the ghosts of his past along with recovering from alcoholism, Scudder is about a step or two away from crumbling all together. He finds purpose to exist in his work, and is willing to go on cases in return for certain “favors.” With his history, Scudder prefers to do things by the book, but when push comes to shove, he’s able to bend the rules just enough to get his way.
Matt Scudder is a classic noir character. This is someone that Robert Mitchum could have played a long time ago. In fact, other characters compare him to Sam Spade and Philip Marlowe by name. Liam Neeson wears him like a second skin, exuding a lethargy that makes Scudder more interesting than he probably has the right to be. But he’s not entirely mopey or depressing either. Simultaneously, Frank imbues him with dialogue highlighting the overall B-movie aesthetic. Neeson can intimidate another while talking on the phone (he’s really good at that), but can also generate laughs without changing the tone of his voice.
The plot calls to mind Jacques Tourneur’s Out of the Past (1947). Scudder gets hired by a local drug dealer named Kenny (Dan Stevens, acting with a permanent grimace) to find out who kidnapped his wife. It’s an interesting situation to be in when a drug dealer asks an ex-cop to investigate a crime, isn’t it? As Scudder takes the case and delves further into the circumstances of the kidnapping, he uncovers a gruesome and lurid account of corruption and madness, mostly involving drug kingpins and the women in their lives.
Although the pacing is intended to be deliberate, Frank maintains the forward momentum to keep us intrigued as to what will happen next. This isn’t so much a question of “who” is committing these crimes, but more about “where” they will strike next. In a mystery such as this, details can be lost as we wind our way around, but Frank keeps things (relatively) in line. Sure, there are moments where things get goofy, like when we see Scudder interviewing locals for clues, but the procedural aspects are fairly straightforward.
The best crime thrillers have great villains. Anthony Hopkins’s Hannibal Lector, Kevin Spacey’s John Doe, the list goes on and on. A big problem with this is the generic quality of the villain (or villains) at play. They’re painted just as we would expect any movie psychopath would. And wouldn’t you know it: they also operate inside of a creepy basement. For once I would like to see a serial killer actually try to keep their place nice and tidy – organization is everything, people! There’s not much personality to them, and while we get some explanation as to why they target the women of various drug dealers, it comes off as a mundane character trait. The most fun we get is seeing them buckle at the knees when they run across Liam Neeson. Because who wouldn’t, am I right?
There’s a secondary plot involving Scudder and a young kid named TJ (Brian ‘Astro’ Bradley). TJ flirts dangerously close to foster care, and spends a lot of his time trying to avoid other people. But he’s also street smart and resourceful, and connects with Scudder because of his wish to be a private eye also. Neeson and Bradley have a quirkiness that works well on screen. They’re of two different personalities, yet they strangely fit together. Unfortunately, their dynamic takes away from the narrative flow. I understand why Scudder takes TJ under his wing given his past, but as Scudder teaches him the differences of right and wrong, I got impatient to get back to the main plot thread. Scudder and TJ have the best lines of dialogue together, but their story doesn’t gel with the rest of the film.
A Walk Among The Tombstones is the type of movie I’m drawn to. I enjoy seeing questionable characters act within their own twisted sense of morality, and if there a few chuckles along the way, I’m all for that. There are a number of issues going on – nearly all the female characters are portrayed as victims or damsels in need of rescue. But I did enjoy the grittiness, the slow burn style, the balance between horror and comedy, and yes the silliness of the whole piece. Taken this is not, and that’s a relief.