Scott Frank’s A Walk Among the Tombstones is a solidly constructed and cleverly directed crime thriller, with a magnetic Liam Neeson at its centre. The film takes on all the usual genre clichés of the noir private detective, but manages to squeeze a little life out of them and produce an entertaining film.
Reviewed by Drew Ninnis.
Director: Scott Frank
Screenplay: Scott Frank. Based on a novel by Lawrence Block.
Runtime: 114 minutes.
Cast: Liam Neeson, Dan Stevens, David Harbour, Laura Birn.
Trailer: “Cops didn't have to pay for their drinks.” Sign me up.
Plot: Matthew Scudder is a recovering alcoholic and former cop, earning an honest and low key living as a private eye. Approached by a colleague in an AA meeting, Scudder is persuaded to do some dubious work for a local drug dealer; namely, locating the killer of his wife, after a ransom gone bad. What Scudder uncovers is a unique and twisted criminal ring, and the man’s convictions are firmly put to the test as he must confront old wounds over leaving the police force.
Review: A Walk Among the Tombstones, the latest stoic Liam Neeson vehicle, radiates melancholy and alienation like an Edward Hopper painting. Namely Nighthawks, with a palate of traffic light greens and oranges in night shots and a subdued blue tint during the day; and, of course, diner scenes a plenty. The whole effect is to reanimate the classic noir tale of characters like Sam Spade – who is cheekily name dropped during the film – filtered through a crisp, cold style pioneered by David Fincher and put to good use here by Scott Frank. That may seem like a lot of references, but Frank’s film wears its influences on its sleeve, in many cases calling them out itself; natural enough, given that the director must be conscious of the well-trodden territory he’s covering with this atypical tale of murder, kidnapping, and ransom. Goodness, this isn’t even close to Liam Neeson’s first kidnapping film; a sub-genre he has made his forte in recent years. Yet A Walk Among the Tombstones distinguishes itself from its brethren, coming up with a just original enough take to reward viewing and keep the audience engaged. Frank firmly establishes his skill as a director in this, his second film; while Neeson continues to be quietly charismatic and magnetic as the hero with a past.
The film follows Matthew Scudder, a former cop whose rock-bottom back story is related at the start of the film. Clean and sober for eight years, Scudder turns to respectable but small-time work as a private eye; but he’s a detective with principles, who never uses a gun and favours public transport. Those principles are put to the test when a fellow addict approaches him with Scudder’s latest case, a kidnapping and ransom gone wrong, on behalf of his brother who also happens to be a drug dealer. Said dealer was prompt in delivering the money, although haggling over the price, to little effect; his wife turned up dead anyway, and with gruesome details to match. Scudder starts to suspect that he isn’t dealing with a straightforward ransom case gone wrong, intuiting that something more sinister is lurking on the other end of the line and that he’s heading straight for it. He isn’t wrong.
Sure, it’s not the most original plot but Neeson’s performance as Scudder sells it anyway, giving the character a feel of gravitas and tragedy. He’s assisted by Brian 'Astro' Bradley as T.J., a homeless teenager who assists Neeson in his investigation and helps the analogue gumshoe adapt to a newly digital world (the year is 1991, and the Y2K bug looms amusingly in the background). The accidental, protective relationship they form becomes the secret heart of the film; sustaining some sentiment in the face of an otherwise dismal and nasty portrayal of the world. ‘Fuckin’ Amish got more flavour than you do, Matthew,’ T.J. remarks, as the two bond in that typically masculine way.
At points, Frank’s direction strains a little too hard and misses the mark; his incessant cutting within establishing shots comes across as a little too try-hard, and a structural conceit involving the twelve step program at the close of the film doesn’t work as well as the director obviously hoped. There’s the usual genre accoutrements here too, with a penchant for vehicular tracking shots, and some fairly extreme crime material that mysteriously scandalises and titillates older audiences (others may simply be bored by the excessive, suggested gore). But you have to respect the effort here, as Frank’s script and direction take on a genre full of clichés, and still manages to squeeze a little life out of them. A Walk Among the Tombstones is a respectable and enjoyable effort to do just that; perhaps not the best date movie unless your tastes run to the truly kinky (like a cringe-inducing ball tasering), but a solid and hard-boiled crime thriller.
Rating: Three stars.