A Walk among the Tombstones isn’t a movie that offers up cheap thrills. It bides its time using mood and dialogue. It’s a dark and subdued detective thriller more fascinated with the mechanics of private-eye investigation than the bone-crunching sounds of Liam Neeson smashing in the faces of bad guys. Don’t worry, you’ll get plenty of both. Writer-director Scott Frank’s drama, which is based on the 1992 novel by Lawrence Block, may not be as sharp or smart as it thinks it is but this pulpy drama is very much the antithesis of the cartoonish action movies Neeson has been making since hitting pay dirt with Taken in 2009.
Neeson plays Matt Scudder, a New York City private eye who, as he puts it, “I do favors for people. In return, they give me gifts.” Scudder may be cut from the same cloth as Phillip Marlow, Jack Reacher and Dirty Harry, but he’s unique among detectives in that he doesn’t carry a gun and resorts to violence only when he absolutely needs to. This is a man who’d rather talk his way out of a confrontation than participate in one. He’s also weary of technology—be it cell phones or computers. It’s a detail Frank accentuates by setting the film in a pre-Y2K 1999 replete with panic of impending catastrophe. As one of the characters notes, “People are afraid for all the wrong reasons.”
As we learn during the opening sequence set in 1991, Scudder used to be an NYPD cop—a drunk and careless one at that. However, after a confrontation with a gang of thieves had unintentional consequences, he quit the force. Haunted by the incident, he’s now a regular at AA meetings, inspiring others to rise above their painful mistakes too. A chance encounter with a contact at one of these meetings leads him to Kenny Kristo (Dan Stevens) a drug trafficker whose wife was kidnapped and gruesomely murdered. Hungry for revenge, Kristo offers Scudder a cool $40k to find the people who murdered his wife but the sleuth isn’t very interested in fulfilling blood-lusts. But when it turns out that this kidnapping-murder is only the latest in a line of gruesome murders of young females, all related to drug traffickers, he takes on the case.
Unlike serial killer dramas like Seven or the recent kidnapping thriller Prisoners, Frank isn’t interested in withholding the identities of the villains until the very end. We find out early on that they’re a pair of extremely intelligent and sadistic white dudes who revel in the suffering of their victims. Frank’s focus instead is on chronicling how Scudder uses his contacts, experience, and interrogation skills to find them.
Choosing to reveal the killers early also allows Frank to emphasize the brutality of the murders. Although he’s sensitive enough to leave most of the violence off-screen, the sexual nature of the crimes and our understanding of the sadism makes a lot of it very uncomfortable to watch, especially since all the victims are women. A voyeuristic sequence where the two killers force a woman to choose between which body part she’d like to lose first is a study in audience discomfort. Another sequence, perhaps the most memorable and unsettling image in the film, depicts the killers gawking at a pre-teen girl from within their van as she trots by them. The kicker here is that the scene is shot completely in slow-motion while the chorus of Donovan’s “Atlantis” blares over the speakers. It’s sickening stuff but it captures the mindset of the madmen without delving on gore.
Frank, whose screenwriting credits include Out of Sight, Minority Report, Malice, Get Shorty, as well as the terrific and under-seen The Lookout (which he also directed), obviously knows his way around a crime story. Like his previous efforts, A Walk among the Tombstones teems with pungent and pulpy dialogue, giving it the necessary hard-boiled edge. He also winks at astute viewers by incorporating more than a couple of passing references to Sam Spade and Phillip Marlow. This connection to the detective fiction genre is further highlighted in Mihai Malaimare Jr.’s photography which evokes the mood of ‘70s New York-set detective thrillers (The French Connection is a major visual touchstone). Save for a few isolated sequences from the killers’ perspective, grays and muted colors are the dominant tones here, with overcast skies and halogen-lit downpours adding to the dreariness.
The biggest problem of A Walk among the Tombstones is that suffers from padding a relatively straight-forward narrative with too many frivolous subplots and characters that add nothing to the story. A filmmaker more committed to a leaner experience would have had no troubles excising these unnecessary detours but Frank can’t help himself. A subplot involving a homeless kid named T.J. (Brian “Astro” Bradley), although humorous, is pointless. Similarly, Dan Steven’s character Kristo and his drug-addicted brother Peter (Boyd Holbrook) serve as nothing more than plot devices. Frank also never dovetails into why the killers only target drug dealers and women—especially considering the bizarre homosexual undertones of their relationship.
In the end though, your opinion of the film will largely depend on how much you like Neeson. Scudder is an imposing, dangerous and deeply haunted figure but the Irish actor, as always, brings a blanket of warmth and likability to the man. Scudder won’t rank among his most iconic roles but it’s more than a few notches above his Brian Mills character in the lame-brain Taken movies. His sturdy work here instills belief that although action movies may be his bread-and-butter, Neeson is still devoted to appearing in smart adult fare when he chooses to. That, in and of itself, is a relief.
Director: Scott Frank
Screenwriter: Scott Frank
Cast: Liam Neeson, Dan Stevens, Boyd Holbrook, David Harbour, Adam David Thompson
Producer: Danny DeVito, Michael Shamberg, Stacey Sher
Editor: Jill Savitt
Cinematographer: Mihai Malaimare Jr.
Music: Carlos Rafael Rivera
Running time: 113 minutes
Companies: Universal Pictures
Rating: R for strong violence, disturbing images, language and brief nudity