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A Walk Among the Tombstones (2014)

| September 22, 2014 | 0 Comments

For those who treasure the great film noir thrillers of yore, A Walk Among the Tombstones seems like return to a genre that Hollywood has forgotten how to make. These days, action thrillers are unremittingly simple-minded, put together by filmmakers who are so terrified of offending moviegoers with short attention spans that every detail of the plot must be spelled out in neon colors and every fight scene must be predictably choreographed like a dance number – I speak of vapid entertainments like Taken, Jack Reacher and the Jason Bourne pictures.

A Walk Among the Tombstones is a smart, exciting thriller and a return to the kind hard-boiled detective stories found in the pages of Raymond Chandler, Mickey Spillane and Dashell Hammitt. The only thing missing are the fedoras, the killer dames, Peter Lorre and buckets of overblown narration. What it has though is a sense of tone and mood, wrapped around a familiar story about a well-intentioned cop thrust into a nearly-inhuman set of criminal circumstances.

The movie opens in 1991 where we meet a drunken Brooklyn police detective named Matt Scudder (Liam Neeson) on what might be the worst day of his life. He walks into a bar and gulp down a drink before a shoot-out occurs and the circumstances therein derail the course of his life for better and for worse. Jump ahead eight years to 1999, and we find that Matt has left the force and gone private although he doesn’t have a license. His AA meetings are bullet points for his life.

Matt is hired for an unusual case involving two sadistic sickos who are making a game out of kidnapping the wives, girlfriends and daughters of some of Brooklyn’s drug dealers and traffickers and demanding a huge ransom. The situation leaves the husbands and boyfriends pinned in a corner because their criminal activities won’t allow them to get the police involved. Worse, the killers are collecting the money but aren’t returning the girls. What the killers do to the girls is beyond sadistic, but director Scott Frank keeps just enough off-screen that we get the idea without being repulsed by the violence.

Much more about the plot will not be revealed here – believe me, I have only scratched the surface. What is special about A Walk Among the Tombstones is that Scott Frank creates a movie that has the intelligence and the patience to tell the story it is unfolds rather than spell it all out at the beginning so we follow a predictable bee-line to the conclusion. Along the way, we know only what Matt knows, and as he gets himself deeper and deeper into the case, the story gets more twisty and his moral compass begins to lose its trajectory. The film’s third act is to be applauded for not going for an easy pay-off. There are questions of morality and a revelation of what Matt has been experiencing off the job that reveals more about his tarnished soul than we might expect.

This is Liam Neeson’s best performance in years. Ever since the success of Taken, filmmakers have been trying to turn him into an action star in throw-away action meringue like The Grey, Unknown and Non-Stop. Here he’s given a character that is more than just fisticuffs. Matt Sculler is a man whose job is to toil amid the worst inhumanity that man has to offer, and Neeson does a good job of portraying a man whose stern eyes betray a sad and weary heart. The movie never gives him a back-story beyond what is needed. His eyes tell us that the elements of his past have been washed away by booze and a bitter world view brought on by his chosen profession. How he fuses his 12-steps into his daily life is the film’s greatest reward.

What is most special about A Walk Among the Tombstones is it’s atmosphere. We’re smack-dab in the middle of Brooklyn as it was in the last year of the 20th century, a world in which the inhabitants are mired in a misplaced paranoia over Y2K – misplaced as we see The World Trade Center looming on the horizon. The world presented here is bleak and indifferent. There’s a quiet stillness to the film that is a lot more thrilling than just violence and jump cuts. Director Scott Frank, who wrote Out of Sight and made the criminally overlooked gem The Lookout creates a film out of elements that linger in our minds; a service van, a piece of duct tape, a ragging cough, a groundskeeper, a red coat, a nude painting, a meat cleaver, a flock of pigeons. We remember unusual faces – the supporting cast is made up exclusively of unknown actors.  Frank has a way of leading all of these elements into the plot in a way that makes them stand out in our minds. When it’s over you’re thinking about this movie in a way that other thrillers do not.

About the Author:

Jerry Roberts is a film critic and operator of two websites, Armchair Cinema and Armchair Oscars.