With Liam Neeson, Maurice Compte, Patrick McDade, Luciano Acuna Jr, and Hans Marrero; Written and directed by Scott Frank; Rated R for strong violence, disturbing images, language and brief nudity; 113 minutes.
For those who have lost countless rainy afternoons compulsively turning the yellowed pages of vaguely disreputable paperback detective novels, writer-director Scott Frank’s A WALK AMONG THE TOMBSTONES will feel like a gift. This is one unabashedly retro hunk of hard-boiled pulp, played straight, with no postmodern chaser. You won’t find any winks or Sin City posturing here, as Frank demonstrates a reverence for time-honored tropes and archetypes. They’re sunk into the storytelling, so bone-deep that I suppose that it and the film could be dismissed by some as a mere genre exercise. But make no mistake–this is a genre exercise with uncommon craftsmanship and a heavy heart.
Liam Neeson stars as Matthew Scudder, a former New York cop working as an unlicensed private investigator these days, maintaining a rigorous schedule of AA meetings. The battered-but-not-broken hero of some seventeen books by the great Lawrence Block, Scudder’s made it to the big screen just once before, played by Jeff Bridges in Hal Ashby and Oliver Stone’s “Eight Million Ways To Die,” a sleazy 1986 spectacle that while never released on DVD, still looms large in the late night cable memories of a certain generation of dudes for whom Rosanna Arquette helped kickstart puberty.
“A Walk Among The Tombstones” is a much more somber affair, beginning with a shootout that is startling in its suddenness and offhand brutality, segueing into one of the more unsettling opening credits sequences in recent memory. I’m as big a fan as anyone of Liam Neeson’s late-career resurgence in junk food B-movie programmers, but from the outset this film announces itself as something else: it takes violence seriously.
It is the fall of 1999 in New York’s run-down, garbage strewn outer boroughs, where against his better judgment, Scudder finds himself on the trail of two twisted sadists kidnapping the spouses of mid-level drug traffickers for quick cash ransoms. Given the nature of their ill-gotten gains, the marks would rather not go to the authorities, while the abductors have a bad habit of returning their hostages in garbage bags.
So yes, on one level this is another film in which Liam Neeson has “a certain set of skills,” but part of what makes “A Walk Among The Tombstones” so interesting is how hard he’s trying not to have to use them. It’s a patient, slow-burner of a movie, engrossing us in the all-but-forgotten pleasures of simple shoe leather detective work. (In his long screenwriting career adapting everybody from Elmore Leonard to Philip K. Dick, Frank has mastered the nuts and bolts of a well-told yarn.) Fans of Liam’s recent Charles Bronson phase might be taken aback at how often he chooses to defuse conflicts instead of busting heads.
In another typically marvelous performance, Neeson towers over his co-stars, carrying himself with the matter-of-fact vigilance of a guy who has seen it all and thus knows better than anybody else just how much worse things are gonna get. Scudder’s sobriety figures prominently both plot-wise and in the subtext: he’s working it one day at a time, always acutely aware that a single slip could send him sliding right back into the abyss. Frank bumped Block’s 1992 novel up by seven years, so everyone’s babbling on about Y2K paranoia while freighted shots of the New York skyline forebode greater horrors to come. “People are afraid of all the wrong things,” says one of the film’s sickos, perhaps putting too fine a point on it.
Cinematographer Mihai Malaimare Jr. shoots the city as a gorgeous ruin, favoring sparse wide shots with heavy negative space bearing down on these isolated characters. There’s a doomy grandiosity befitting the title, and when violence inevitably occurs it is something not to be cheered, but mourned. Frank refuses to sensationalize the lurid material, even cross-cutting the finale with one of Scudder’s AA meetings–less interested in the monstrousness than in the heavy cost that fighting monsters weighs on men’s souls. Throughout the film, I was reminded of Raymond Chandler’s famous essay, “The Simple Art Of Murder,” in which he wrote:
“Down these mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean, who is neither tarnished nor afraid. The detective must be a complete man and a common man and yet an unusual man. He must be, to use a rather weathered phrase, a man of honor. He talks as the man of his age talks, that is, with rude wit, a lively sense of the grotesque, a disgust for sham and a contempt for pettiness.”
If that’s your kind of thing, “A Walk Among The Tombstones” is your kind of movie.•••
Over the past fifteen years Sean Burns’ reviews, interviews and essays have appeared in Philadelphia Weekly, The Improper Bostonian, Metro, The Boston Herald, Nashville Scene, The House Next Door, Time Out New York, EntertainmentTell, Philadelphia City Paper and RogerEbert.com. He stashes them all at Spliced Personality.