First of all, ignore all of the Taken 3 jokes you’re going to hear about A Walk Among The Tombstones. This new film, opening today and starring Liam Neeson, is everything those are not — whereas the two Taken films are relentlessly paced, jarringly edited, flashily shot, and ultimately thematically hollow exercises, A Walk Among The Tombstones is slow, deliberate, contemplative, and often deeply unsettling, a solid effort despite some obvious flaws. Regardless, this is a far better film than either of them, and it’s in no small part due to some excellent, subdued acting by Neeson and the steady, patient directing hand of Scott Frank (The Lookout).
Based on one of a long string of popular detective novels by Lawrence Block, A Walk Among The Tombstones features Matthew Scudder (played with a solemn implacability by Neeson), a quiet, unlicensed private detective whose life is a study in what he used to be — ex-family man, ex-cop, recovering alcoholic. In a refreshing bit of solid character work, all of those things play strong roles in who he is today, instead of being simple set dressings to make you think he’s deep. Scudder is unquestionably damaged goods, living his life on the fringe, doing “favors” for people in exchange for money. This time around, the favor comes in the form of Kenny Kristo, a drug trafficker (Dan Stevens) whose wife has been kidnapped, and who needs the kidnappers found. Not to rescue her, mind you — his wife is already dead, gruesomely delivered to him in neatly-wrapped pieces — but out of sheer vengeance.
There’s more to the film’s murky plot — Scudder soon discovers that Kristo is not the first wealthy criminal targeted in such a fashion, nor will he be the last. There’s all manner of criminal complications tossed in, all challenging the malleable, complex moral code that Scudder is trying to build for himself in the aftermath of the ruination of his former life. Along the way, he picks up an unwanted sidekick in the form of an itinerant street kid named TJ (Brian ‘Astro’ Bradley), who serves as a strangely innocent observer into the darkness that surrounds Scudder. Meanwhile, the film also has brief flashes into the lives of the two mostly nameless killers (David Harbour and Adam David Thompson), juxtaposing their terrifyingly inert hollowness as they go through tasks as mundane as cooking breakfast to cleaning their tools of torture, with brief glimpses of them as the monsters, torturing and dismembering, the only times they ever seem alive.
The performances are solid all around, and the direction is perfect for the tone of the film. There’s a cold beauty to Frank’s style — the sunny days are filmed at graveyards and rundown factory districts, the nights are dank and dirty and yet still feel alive — and it suits the unrelentingly grim tone of the film. And it is grim — Tombstones is a bleak, sometimes hard-to-watch, ghoulish film. The killers are horrible, uncharismatic, with none of the quirks or cleverness that we sometimes see in Hollywood antagonists. There is no ambivalence to their evilness, no bottom to the depths of their psychosis. It becomes an endurance test from the very beginning, as the credits blink over quiet, terrifying flashes of a woman about to receive their torment. The film never gets torture-porny about it, though — instead, it tells instead of shows, and it does so so perfectly that it’s difficult to endure at times. Even the protagonists — a alcoholic ex-cop, a rage-filled drug dealer, a heroin addict and a homeless kid — go the extra mile to suffuse the film with an almost suffocating darkness. It’s unfortunate that so much of its violence is against women, especially since other than the victims, women play next to no part in the story. But then, other than Scudder and TJ, there is little for anyone else to do other than some light support roles. As is often the case with the genre, it suffers from one too many herrings, one too many loops that it tries to toss us through.
Yet it excels in being something rarely seen — it’s a near-perfect detective film, a true homage to the genre. When TJ name-checks Spade and Marlowe, it’s done slightly tongue-in-cheek, but it’s also apt. The marketing is a bit misleading, with Neeson pointing guns left and right. In truth, the film is essentially bookended by gunfights — one at the beginning to show Scudders fall from grace, and one at the end as a part of the films a-little-bit-too-long climax. The vast middle of the film’s two hour story is simple detective work and storytelling, nuanced, straightforward and without much flash, but quite engaging. It’s refreshing to see a detective story with actual detecting, instead of a over-edited combination of interrogation and action. It also eschews all manner of technological foofery (in part due to its 1999 setting — there’s a scene with Scudder doing research at a library using microfiche that I absolutely loved), instead focusing on the feet-to-the-pavement traditionalism of the film’s pulpy roots. Thus, in keeping with the quiet tone of the picture, Scudder goes through all the steps of hunting down clues and piecing together the puzzle, allowing us to serve as silent observers to the process without overwhelming us with sensory assaults.
There’s not much new, story-wise, in A Walk Among The Tombstones. What separates it from the pack of down-on-his-luck detective stories and serial killer thrillers is a strong sense of atmosphere and a disciplined pacing, refusing to succumb to the traditional action movie tropes, and instead focusing on discovery, determination, and the darkness that surrounds its characters. The bad guys are very bad, yet the good guys aren’t particularly good. It’s a study in broken people, only some are less broken than others. Despite being a solid film, it’s easily about 15 minutes too long and sometimes gets swept up in its efforts to mislead you, resulting in a couple of plot threads that should have simply been excised instead of maring the film’s tight plotting and Frank’s workmanlike directing job. But Neeson is perfect here, serious and grim with just the right amount of tragic introspection, and while there isn’t anything particularly original about the story, there’s something to be said for taking a well-used concept and giving it a fresh polish, even if the finished product is sometimes a little too dark.