A Walk Among the Tombstones is based on the novel of the same name by Lawrence Block, which is a part of a series of novels involving the character of private investigator, Matthew Scudder. This actually wouldn’t be the character’s first appearance on the big screen, since Lawrence Block’s 1982 novel, Eight Million Ways to Die, was adapted into the 1986 film of the same name by writers, Oliver Stone and David Lee Henry, and director, Hall Ashby (in his final theatrical release no less). For A Walk Among the Tombstones, we have Scott Frank as the writer and director. For those unfamiliar, you might recognize him from his only other directorial feature, 2007’s The Lookout, and being a co-writer for films like Minority Report, The Wolverine, Get Shorty and Out of Sight, among others.
A Walk Among the Tombstones takes place in 1999 New York, with occasional flashbacks to 1991 where we follow Matthew Scudder (Liam Neeson) a former cop who quite due to an incident back in 91 that was caused by a state of intoxication. When he isn’t busy with his AA meetings, he will do favors for people as an unlicensed private detective. One day he meets with Kenny Kristo (Dan Stevens), a drug trafficker whose wife was murdered in a very gruesome fashion, and he offers Matthew a generous sum of money to find the people responsible. While initially reluctant to get involved, Matthew Scudder finds himself in the middle of an investigation as he gets closer and closer to finding the killers.
Though it can be certainly easy to write off A Walk Among the Tombstones as just another Liam Neeson action thriller like the Taken movies, this film offers something that is not seen as much in modern wide-releases. If you’re looking for a fun, action romp, then turn away because this film is anything but. This is very much a bleak, grim neo-noir, hardboiled detective story driven by suspense in the same vein as films like 8mm, The Silence of the Lambs or even last year’s Prisoners. Not only is it one of the better examples of that subgenre I’ve seen in a while, it’s also one of the best Liam Neeson films in years.
It really should be stressed just how dark the film is, and while not necessarily the most gruesome movie I’ve seen this year, it is clearly not going to be everyone’s cup of tea. That is especially given how the film practically revolves around these two psychotic killers who commit atrocious acts against women, and while not explicitly shown in graphic detail on camera most of the time, the implications alone are enough to require a serious trigger warning. However, despite the grisliness of the material that the film deals with, it never feels exploitative. The portrayals of the crime and the killers themselves are done very realistically, with little to no theatrics about them. This is achieved through very good writing and directing from Scott Frank. He manages to keep a very consistent tone throughout the film and everything from the acting to the music and editing, etc. supports that tone extremely well. One of the standout technical aspects is the cinematography by Mihai Malaimare Jr, who you might recognize from his brilliant use of 70mm film in The Master back in 2012. He uses grace and subtlety in crafting his shots, with an excellent use of focus and lighting. Jill Savitt’s editing is tight, and while the film is a slow-burn, it has enough drive in the story that keeps you consistently interested, which the editing does a good job with. Another aspect that is worth mentioning is the excellent score by Carlos Rafael Rivera, a moody, old-school noir-ish sound that isn’t always present throughout the film, but is used very effectively when it does come up. Interestingly enough, it’s his first film score, and an impressive one at that. He’s definitely a talent to keep an eye on. It’s the combination of all these elements plus the use of New York (that’s either under overcast or raining) as a backdrop which provides for a gloomy and depressing atmosphere. Then there is also the sound editing, which really shines when things get really intense. Every gunshot is deafening, each punch feels real, and the work from the sound team overall is incredible, especially with how it helps in building up suspense.
As previously mentioned, I think this is one of Liam Neeson’s best in years. He can carry a film, we all know that, and while it certainly can be fun watching him be a superhero with movies like Taken, it’s nice to see him actually act. He is fantastic as Matthew Scudder, and his performance adds a lot to the character. It’s a kind of role Liam Neeson slips into very easily, but given how real his character feels, it adds to, not only the character, but the movie itself. There is also not a weak link in the supporting cast, with everyone at their A-game. I also need to mention Brian Bradley (otherwise known as Astro), who plays a homeless teenager named TJ that wants to help Matthew Scudder in his investigation. Yes, this film has the whole “teenage sidekick” thing, but it actually works. Not only does his character come in handy at times, but the performance is good, he’s not annoying, he never gets in the way, and he also works really well with Liam Neeson. He also provides some of the film’s lighter moments, not because he’s a comic-relief type character, he just naturally brings in a level of humanity that is nice to have in a film that would otherwise be a completely emotionally draining experience. Actors David Harbour and Adam David Thompson plays the two serial killers, and they are creepy, damn near terrifying to say the least. Both very distinctive personalities played in a very subdued way that adds to the realism of the film, making it that much more uneasy when they are on screen, especially given how average and normal they look.
There is one element of the film that kind of threw me off a bit. For a majority of the first half of the film, the killers’ faces were hidden or obscured in some way. I assumed it was to serve the mystery aspect of the investigation as Scudder tries to find out who these guys are. However, around the half-way point, once we get a name, the movie just goes ahead and reveals the faces. It wasn’t really building up to a reveal or anything like that, it’s like the movie decided not to move away from Prisoners territory and switch to a more Silence of the Lambs feel, as we get to follow the killers for extended periods of time. The transition worked fine, given how well it was handled, but I was still confused by the need to hide them to begin with. Perhaps it was to show that they were just normal looking people, but they never seemed otherwise from the glimpses they showed before. One complaint that I can understand is that the film does contain many elements that have been done in many other noirs and crime-thrillers, including the characters and the basic story. However, I don’t think that matters because it is so well executed that the fact that I have already seen some of these things before don’t really bother me, in fact, they make me appreciate the film so much more because a lesser filmmaker probably wouldn’t have made the film as effective as it was.
A Walk Among the Tombstones is a fantastic film, as if someone found a long lost script that was meant to be given to William Friedkin back in the 70’s. It may not be for everybody, and while it does use some common tropes and clichés found in other noir films and investigative thrillers, it is handled by people who have a great understanding of their craft and a real love for the genre. It relies more on mood and a heavy atmosphere that is expertly delivered by great cinematography, music, production and sound design and acting. It’s appropriately stylish, but filled with enough character depth to add some substance, making the grim adventure one that is worth taking. Liam Neeson is at his absolute best, and Scott Frank has cemented himself as a force to be reckoned with as a writer/director. And hey, anyone disappointed with Sin City: A Dame to Kill For might find their pulpy noir fix with this film. Check it out; just don’t go in expecting another Taken film.
Side Note: Since I mentioned it already, I’ll expand a bit more upon the 1986 film, 8 Million Ways to Die. It’s written by Oliver Stone and David Lee Henry and directed by Hal Ashby, based on the book of the same name. Jeff Bridges stars as Matthew Scudder, Rosanna Arquette plays a prostitute named Sarah, and Andy Garcia plays Angel Maldonado, the villain. Unlike A Walk Among the Tombstone’s bleak atmosphere with a New York setting, 8 Million Ways to Die is more of a sleazy, 80’s crime-thriller set in sunny Los Angeles. There’s a really good synth score from James Newton Howard (doing one of his first film scores in an interesting coincidence), there’s also prostitutes, pimps, F-bombs being gleefully dropped left and right and a ton of cocaine. From what I hear, it’s a very loose adaptation of the book. Either way, I think this movie is a lot of fun and I do recommend it for those who like these types of movies. It may be a complete trash, but it’s fun trash.