Mark Reviews Movies

A Walk Among the Tombstones


2 ˝ Stars (out of 4)

Director: Scott Frank

Cast: Liam Neeson, Dan Stevens, Brian "Astro" Bradley, Boyd Holbrook, David Harbour, Adam David Thompson

MPAA Rating: R (for strong violence, disturbing images, language and brief nudity)

Running Time: 1:53

Release Date: 9/19/14

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Review by Mark Dujsik | September 19, 2014

The man at the heart of A Walk Among the Tombstones searches for any chance at redemption wherever he can find it. If an opportunity resides in the company of greedy drug traffickers and Russian mobsters and soulless murderers, then so be it. For Matt Scudder (Liam Neeson), within that company may be the only place where he can truly atone for his sins. From his perspective, he has committed a nearly unforgivable sin. It was an accident, but he is convinced it was a completely avoidable one, made primarily due to a weakness that he has spent eight years working to overcome. It's not enough.

The movie doesn't dig into Scudder's character until the final act, but when it does, writer/director Scott Frank fully invests in the idea. It's not a change in tone or a shift in narrative focus. Frank gives the movie a different form. Until that point, we've observed a fairly straightforward murder mystery, in which the protagonist follows a series of linear clues, and it builds to a predictable standoff, with the movie's hero and anti-heroes squaring off against a pair of villains who make the anti-heroes look like saints.

Within that showdown, though, Frank tinkers with the editing. We're watching an action sequence, but Frank intercuts it with another scene observing Scudder at his most vulnerable. The director freezes certain frames in mid-action so that we can hear a 12-step list of the kind life Scudder wants—maybe even needs—to lead.

The effect is almost like reading his mind. Suddenly and quite bluntly, we're forced to confront what Scudder has done before and is doing at that present moment in terms of his ultimate motive. It's a chaotic and bewildering sequence, and that might be why it's as effective as it is. We go into it expecting running, diving, and shooting, but instead, Frank offers a man taking inventory of his life.

Scudder is a former New York City police detective who, after a shooting incident, has switched careers to an unofficial private investigator. As he puts it to a potential client, he sometimes does "favors" for people in exchange for "gifts." The man looking for a favor is Kenny Kristo (Dan Stevens), a drug trafficker and the brother of Peter (Boyd Holbrook), whom Scudder knows through AA.

Kenny's wife was abducted, and even though he paid the ransom, his wife's captors murdered her. Scudder refuses, but Kenny gives him a recording of the wife's murder that the killers left for him. Scudder calls to take the case while Kenny is still walking away from Scudder's apartment building.

Frank's screenplay (based on the novel by Lawrence Block) proceeds as one would expect. Scudder interviews witnesses, searches for connections to other crimes, interviews some more witnesses, and eventually comes to a few conclusions about the case he started with and a few others in addition to it. It all makes logical sense, which is to say that the mystery neither irritates with obvious holes nor carries the initial intrigue through to the end. It serves its purpose, which is to take us into a dreary web of gruesome crimes and cut-up bodies. The killers (David Harbour and Adam David Thompson) hunt for their next victim, and Scudder tries to figure out the connection between their previous ones.

The turning point comes with the introduction of TJ (Brian "Astro" Bradley), a homeless boy who quickly develops a desire to become Scudder's partner. The kid knows the famous literary detectives (He notes that they all have good names, and come to think of it, "Matt Scudder" is a decent one), and he starts trying to prove himself to Scudder.

Their scenes together are the first signs that our hero might have more to him than a keen eye for evidence, a logistical mind, and the ability to disarm a possible assailant just by telling him that the knife he's holding is going to end up where he doesn't want it to if he doesn't drop it. Scudder is gruff and short on sentiment (When TJ tells Scudder not to worry about him, the detective responds, "I don't"), but then there's scene in which he teaches the boy a no-nonsense, necessary lesson on gun safety that wouldn't come from someone who doesn't care.

Neeson plays Scudder as a man who is weary of everything—his job, his past, his recovery (Note the rote way he repeats his story at AA meetings), his life. It's a performance that's as serviceable as the mystery, although, once the screenplay explains the true reason Scudder left the department, Neeson's haggardness seems like a form of self-oppression. He won't allow himself to feel anything, because to do so would be to reopen an old wound that never quite healed.

There are two narrative threads here: the mystery and Scudder's growing comprehension of how to put the lessons of his recovery into action. What's lacking is cohesion between the two. A Walk Among the Tombstones only connects the strands in the climax, but when it does, the movie creates a plot and a character in which we are genuinely involved and a concrete realization of what has been missing.

Copyright © 2014 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.

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