Walk Among the Tombstones, A (United States, 2014)September 19, 2014
Nihilistic. Grim. Humorless. Misogynistic. Those are just a few words that could be used to describe Liam Neeson's new thriller, A Walk Among the Tombstones. The title provides more than a clue about the movie's tone and intentions. Yet this isn't some run-of-the-mill, over-the-top revenge flick in which the good guys triumph and the bad guys get their comeuppance. As written and directed by Scott Frank, this is about the elusiveness (and perhaps illusion) of redemption. The white hats are stained dark gray as if by ashes and soot. The villains are twisted, cruel, and vile. The heroes aren't much better.
If this is your kind of movie, it's hard to find one better made. Frank, whose previous screenwriting credits include Dead Again, Get Shorty, Minority Report, and Out of Sight, knows what he's doing. His direction elicits revulsion at the appropriate times and watching A Walk Among the Tombstones can be an uncomfortable and at times daunting experience. This isn't a rah-rah excursion in which viewers hoot and cheer as the good guy turns the tables on his enemies. This isn't another Taken. The screenplay is dour; there are no one-liners or attempts at comic relief unless you count the signs referencing the impending doom of Y2K (this tale transpires in 1999). The body count isn't high - just into the double-digits - but the ways in which women are brutalized and killed don't make for escapist fare. And that's before the violence turns in the direction of a 14-year old girl. But when you sign on for a movie about serial killers and the men who hunt them, do you expect anything more upbeat? The Silence of the Lambs was brilliant but it was also harsh.
Neeson plays Matt Scudder, the protagonist of 17 novels penned by crime novelist Lawrence Block; this is a role that was essayed some 28 years ago by Jeff Bridges in 8 Million Ways to Die. Scudder is ex-NYPD whose current job is as an unlicensed P.I. He's haunted by the event that caused him to leave the force. He got a commendation for it but he can't shake the memory. The ramifications of his actions that afternoon drove him to join AA and he has been sober ever since. But he's a shell of a man, badly in need of something to drive away the demons. So he takes cases no one else would touch, chasing salvation and finding that the closer he gets the more unattainable it is. If you want a happy ending, go see Guardians of the Galaxy.
Now, eight years after his life changed, Scudder is approached by the Kristo brothers. Peter (Boyd Holbrook) is an artist Scudder met at AA. Kenny (Dan Stevens, formerly of Downton Abbey) is a drug dealer whose wife was recently kidnapped and returned to him in little pieces after he haggled over the ransom. Kenny wants Scudder to locate the killers, a couple of psychos named Ray (David Harbour) and Albert (Adam David Thompson), so he can do to them what they did to his wife. After a period of initial reluctance, Scudder agrees and what he learns convinces him that not only did the butchering duo slaughter two other women but they are likely to strike again.
A Walk Among the Tombstones is more slow-burn than fast-paced, although there are a few action sequences to punctuate lengthy periods of simmering tension. It's neo-noir as it's rarely done because this kind of movie is typically too bloody and too repulsive for mainstream audiences. There are some movies you appreciate for their artistry, audacity, skill, and singlemindedness but never want to see again. This is one of those. Scudder is uncompromising and Neeson plays him without once cracking a smile or leading us to believe he's capable of experiencing even a moment's joy. The trailer, in its shallowness, makes Scudder seem like a clone of Bryan Mills (his character in Taken), but the only real similarities are that they look alike and neither is averse to using violence to achieve his aims.
On a purely narrative level, there are some hiccups. The multiple flashbacks used to detail background information interrupt the flow of the story. A subplot featuring a kid named TJ (Brian "Astro" Bradley) feels shoehorned in. TJ's inclusion is supposed to reveal Scudder's concealed humanity but, as developed, it doesn't work. Finally, Frank's decision to use a voiceover reciting the 12-step program during the climax is pretentious, obvious, and distracting.
There are those who aren't going to be able to watch this. Some will find it upsetting and I can understand that point of view. To me, however, Frank's willingness to go dark and stay there is one of the movie's strengths. This is about a wounded warrior facing death and not caring if it takes him. A Walk Among the Tombstones acknowledges the darkest aspects of the human condition without flinching. It's a tough movie but a rewarding one if the appeal is there.
Walk Among the Tombstones, A (United States, 2014)
Cast: Liam Neeson, Dan Stevens, David Harbour, Boyd Holbrook, Adam David Thompson, Brian Bradley
Screenplay: Scott Frank, based on the novel by Lawrence Block
Cinematography: Mihai Malaimare Jr.
Music: Carlos Rafael Rivera
U.S. Distributor: Universal Pictures