Grim source material makes A Walk Among the Tombstones good cinema
2 ½ out of 4 stars
Today’s films owe a lot to some of the staples that came out of the 70’s.
Key themes of disaster, crime, and sexuality became staples of the cinema of this time in an attempt to climb out of a financial drought within the industry.
A Walk Among the Tombstones takes artistic influence from decades ago as well as a touch of film noir to create a crime thriller set in the 90’s that mostly makes good use of a brooding tone and stark landscape. The film drags and the acting is a bit uneven, but the filmmakers have successfully offset the disturbing material with beautiful cinematography and an economically sound screenplay.
Matthew Scudder (Liam Neeson) has been fighting many demons since his days as an alcoholic New York police officer. Now in an unsettling and harsh 1999, Scudder works as a private investigator who occasionally stretches outside of his legal boundaries to help clients such as drug dealer Kenny Kristo (Dan Stevens). Kristo has hired Scudder to find and deliver the kidnapper(s)/murderer(s) of his wife so that Kristo can exact “justice.” With his homeless teen savant assistant TJ (Brian “Astro” Bradley) to help him, Scudder delves deep into the mysterious murder, inadvertently stumbling into a serial killing spree of grim and gruesome proportions.
Scott Frank (Out of Sight and Minority Report) has adapted the novel by Lawrence Block, and he handles the material quite well. His sparing use of dialogue allows the audience to focus on the fine-tuned behaviors of and interactions between characters, and what little dialogue he uses mostly rings true within the scenescape.
His grasp on the character TJ feels disjointed in comparison to the rest of the roster, particularly as this character seems to have the sole purpose of providing relief against the relentless darkness of the story in a far too obvious way. The characters outside of Scudder could have been fleshed out a bit more, but all in all, Frank appears in top form from the writer’s chair.
While Frank mostly has made a name for himself as a screenwriter, here he has taken on the role of director as well. His clear vision for this adaptation serves the tone and material well. Sparse scoring and harshly edged cityscapes make the viewing experience chilling and engrossing. And with the help of skilled cinematographer Mihai Malaimare Jr. (The Master), Frank achieves realistic, gorgeous shots of a gritty New York using symmetrical framing and harsh filters that give the thriller a (strangely appropriate) romanticism.
He does need a firmer grasp on his sense of dramatic rhythm, which stops and starts quite a bit. The movie feels quite long for its 2 hour running time, and better paced scenes unfortunately end up with choppy editing. But the 70’s style film noir effect he aims at succeeds in giving a bolder, more artistic finish to the entire endeavor.
Well, the 90’s are considered “period” now. And this film makes big strides to make sure we remember the 90’s and remember them well; much too big strides in fact. The enormous amount of visual period references overwhelm to the point of being distracting (if I see one more advertisement for a 1999 Broadway play …).
The production design otherwise makes good use of bare, simple layouts that give the film a bit of a well needed western twang. Even the costumes end up providing ample amounts of character feedback. Scudder’s oversized jacket becomes almost iconic as the film carries on.
Neeson has found a great role for someone with his unique draw as both an actor and a star. His action hero expectations have been equally met by a film that demands underplayed emotion to allow a slow reveal of Scudder’s haunting past. He might be pulling back a hair too much, but he has definitely found his niche. Stevens could have used a bit more direction, as he tends to rely on the intense, judgmental glare to get by in this picture.
Bradley, as adorable as his quips and sneers are, mostly feels like set decoration here. David Harbour gives a phenomenal performance that is disturbing, charismatic, and vulnerable alongside a quietly powerful Adam David Thompson. Ólafur Darri Ólafsson is simply mesmerizing in a key cameo role.
This film will not be easy to watch. The subject of torture has become mostly synonymous with midnight Halloween release viewings recently. But fortunately Frank handles these sequences with tastefulness by editing these sections to a T, including an opening credits sequence that is quite breathtaking.
If you can move past this gore as well as the film’s flaws, you will definitely appreciate this haunting, slow burn thriller and the decades of cinematic inspiration from which it draws.
Mark McCarver was born and raised in Houston, Texas and has been involved in theater and film since he was a kid. He spent the past few years acting and directing across Texas before moving to Washington, DC in the fall of 2012 to get a taste of the East Coast’s entertainment industry. Mark holds a BA in Drama from Trinity University and trained at the Syracuse University – London Drama Program and Shakespeare’s Globe. He is a company member with Half Mad Theatre in Washington.