A film review by Craig J. Koban September 26, 2014

RANK: #20

A WALK AMONG THE TOMBSTONES jjj
½   

2014, R, 113 mins.

 

Liam Neeson as Matt Scudder  /  Maurice Compte as Ortiz  /  David Harbour as Ray  /  Marielle Heller as Marie Gotteskind  /  Annika Peterson as Anita  /  Adam David Thompson as Albert  /  Dan Stevens as Kenny Kristo

Written and directed by Scott Frank  /  Based on the book by Lawrence Block

Scott Frank's A WALK AMONG THE TOMBSTONES – adapted from the 1992 novel the same name by Lawrence Block – is the kind of white knuckled detective crime noir that’s just not made in any abundance anymore.  

The central character – an ex-cop and recovering alcoholic now turned unlicensed private detective – has seen the light of day in multiple books and I can certainly see why this character and material appealed to Liam Neeson, who has made a stellar career detour as of late playing world weary, but tough as nails men of unwavering action.  What surprised me most about A WALK AMONG THE TOMBSTONES is that it’s decidedly not of the Neeson-ian mould as of late (as displayed in the TAKEN series, for example) and is more deeply introspective and moody.  That, and it pairs this intoxicating character with aN intensely involving murder mystery storyline that’s never shy to go dark…and then descend into even greater depths of depravity. 

This is Frank’s second film as a director after his brilliant debut effort THE LOOKOUT (previously to that he wrote films as far ranging as MINORITY REPORT, OUT OF SIGHT, and GET SHORTY) and the writer/director really seems to know his way not only around the headspaces of his flawed and haunted characters, but also of the desperate and seedy universes they reside in.  Much like he did in THE LOOKOUT, Frank methodically draws viewers into the chilling and unsettling world of his protagonist to the point where it becomes a secondary character altogether.  Interestingly enough, Frank sets the film’s time period in 1999 during the height of the Y2K paranoia (the book took place during the early 90’s), a calculated deviation from the source material that pays off handsomely.  The social-cultural anxieties of the end of the last century serves as an accentuating backdrop for the film’s morally uncertain personas, many of which work outside of the law, leaving clear-cut notions of “heroism” and “villainy” existing in a deeply disquieting grey area.   

 

 

Frank does begin the film in 1991 New York as we are introduced to Matthew Scudder (Neeson) during one noteworthy day that will haunt the man forever.  During the pursuit and apprehension of a robbery and murder suspect, Scudder inadvertently commits a horrible misdeed that causes him to leave the NYPD, after which time he turns to heavy boozing.  Flashforward to 1999 near the dawn of the 21st Century and Scudder has emerged as a recovering alcoholic that is now a detective that’s typically enthusiastic to take cases that most other men would be unwilling to.  Nonetheless, Scudder is still emotionally traumatized by the events of 1991, which weighs heavily upon him and always keeps him at an arm’s distance from forging meaningful relationships with other people. 

Scudder is approached by a highly unlikely source with what appears to be the mother of all cases.  Peter Kristo (Boyd Holbrook) pleads with Scudder to meet his drug dealing brother Kenny (DOWNTON ABBEY’s Dan Stevens), whose wife has been kidnapped…but returned to him dead and in many pieces.  Kenny’s mission for Scudder is relatively straightforward: find the perpetrators and bring them back to him alive.  Initially reluctant to help a criminal, Scudder eventually acquiesces to Kenny’s demands, feeling that the psychopaths that committed these horrendous acts will eventually continue on a killing spree.  As he researches similar incidents in the city, Scudder meets and befriends a homeless youth named T.J. (the very solid and natural Brian “Astro” Bradley), who has an affinity for computers and has a shrewd intelligence that makes him an unlikely, but important ally to Scudder’s cause.  When another innocent victim – this time a teenage girl – is abducted, Scudder goes on the offensive to enact a plan to capture the multiple murderers. 

A WALK AMONG THE TOMBSTONES is one of the very few recent thrillers that feel like the kind of slow burn, grungy, character driven, and deeply disturbing whodunits that were made in the 1970’s.  With stirring cinematography by Mihai Malaimare Jr. and period design that does not draw too much obtrusive attention to the film, Frank bathes his story in the dark and desolate Brooklyn landscapes that fosters an unending sensation of unease and pathos throughout.  Equally compelling is the manner that Frank doesn’t go for simplistic character dynamics here.  A WALK AMONG THE TOMBSTONES is not an action-heavy one-man revenge tale, nor is it a black and white story of a square-jawed and ethically sound hero triumphing over pure evil.  Frank populates his film with unreservedly vile killers, to be sure, that deserve what’s coming to them, but the so-called “good guys” of the piece are anything but squeaky clean.  Scudder is a man himself with a highly questionable past that uses many questionable methods in the present to get the results he needs.  He’s noble minded, to be sure, in his pursuit of bringing the sadistic killers to some sort of justice, but Scudder remains an internally disturbed and restless soul that makes mistakes along the way.  In a film world populated by indestructible action heroes, it’s ultimately invigorating to see Scudder emerge as a more reflective, reluctant, and uncertain protagonist. 

Liam Neeson is pitch perfect for play Scudder, and there’s rarely a moment in the film when he doesn't thoroughly commit himself to the role with his trademark grace, gravitas, and understated on-screen charisma.  Unlike, say, Bryan Mills from TAKEN, Scudder is more of a damaged goods loner and societal fringe figure on the verge of never fully mending himself.  That, and the character is much more intriguingly haunted and conflicted soul that has spent many of his years trying to come to grips with past misdeeds while attempting to rectify current ones in the present.  It could be said that Neeson can slip into these type of hardboiled detective roles in his sleep, which is fair, but he’s so bloody good and effective playing these parts that petty criticisms all but erode.  Neeson is the glue that holds the whole enterprise together; he’s arguably never been more finely attuned to a character and better in a film. 

Neeson is complimented by solid supporting performances as well.  Dan Stevens has the thorny and tricky role playing the drug dealer that has legitimate reasons for hiring Scudder, and their working relationship offers a fascinating contrast in personalities and ideology.  The role of T.J. could have devolved quickly into an obligatory mentor/student dynamic, but Brain Bradley plays his role with a streetwise earnestness that never once feels condescendingly phony (the way that Frank builds up his partnership with Scudder also avoids tired genre clichés).  As the film unavoidable spirals towards its blood-soaked and shocking conclusion one feels that Frank has earned such a climax.  A WALK AMONG THE TOMBSTONES ends not on a sense of jubilant victory for its hero, but rather dour melancholy.  There’s a hint that Scudder may not have spiritually survived his ordeal with the killers, not to mention that any attempts to make amends with his sordid past have been stymied when presented with a whole new form of pure, unsympathetic malevolence.   

A WALK AMONG THE TOMBSTONES will not be for everyone, especially the very squeamish and those expecting a perfunctory Neeson action-thriller on auto-pilot (as the trailers for the film have unfairly led many to believe).  For the rest of you that yearn for atypically moody, atmospheric, and character driven crime stories, then A WALK AMONG THE TOMBSTONES will feel like welcome relief.  Scudder has appeared in 17 Lawrence Block novels…and I sincerely want to see more film iterations featuring this character. 

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