D: Scott Frank / 114m
Cast: Liam Neeson, Dan Stevens, David Harbour, Boyd Holbrook, Brian ‘Astro’ Bradley, Ólafur Darri Ólafsson, Adam David Thompson, Mark Consuelos, Sebastian Roché
New York, 1991. Matt Scudder (Neeson) is a cop with a drink problem. When armed robbers hold up the bar he’s in, he chases them outside and shoots all three of them, fatally.
Eight years later, Scudder is an unlicensed private detective, still working in New York, and a recovering alcoholic. When a fellow AA member, Peter (Holbrook) tells him his brother, Kenny (Stevens) wants to offer him a job, Scudder isn’t really interested at first, but he decides to see what the job is about. Kenny offers him $20,000 to find the men who kidnapped and killed his wife. Kenny’s reluctance to involve the police tips off Scudder that he’s a drug dealer, and he declines the offer. When Scudder returns to his apartment later, he finds Kenny waiting for him. Kenny tells him about the kidnapping, and how he was left to find his wife dismembered in the trunk of a car. He also leaves a tape recording the kidnappers made of them torturing his wife. Scudder decides to take the case.
Sensing that Kenny’s wife may not have been the kidnappers first victim, Scudder visits the library to go through the newspaper records. He strikes up a conversation with a young boy, TJ (Bradley), and together they discover two other murder victims where abduction and subsequent dismemberment have occurred. Scudder visits the cemetery where the second victim’s body was discovered, and talks to one of the groundskeepers, Jonas (Ólafsson). Jonas behaves suspiciously, and when he leaves work, Scudder follows him to his apartment. While there he discovers that the partner of the second victim lives in the building opposite. Beginning to see a connection, Scudder goes up onto the roof of Jonas’s building and finds a shed that contains evidence of Jonas’ involvement in her kidnapping and murder. When Jonas returns, he gives Scudder a name – Ray – then jumps off the roof to his death.
Later, Scudder learns that the first victim was a DEA agent, and that the kidnappers may be rogue or ex-DEA agents themselves, as the second victim and Kenny’s wife were both linked to drug dealers. When they kidnap a fourth victim, the daughter of a Russian drug dealer, Yuri (Roché), he calls on Kenny and Scudder’s help. Scudder negotiates a ransom drop in the same cemetery where he met Jonas, but the drop goes badly, and the kidnappers get away… with TJ hiding in their van.
Adapted from the tenth book in the series of Matt Scudder novels written by Lawrence Block, A Walk Among the Tombstones is a grim, atmospheric crime thriller that features a brooding, melancholy performance from Neeson, and suitably gloomy New York locations. It’s a look at the darker, seedier side of Life that is impressively realised by writer/director Frank, and draws the viewer in from its opening shootout (which has tragic consequences), to its blood-soaked denouement in the basement of the kidnappers’ house. Brief moments of levity do occur but they’re few and far between in a movie that anchors itself so effectively in the underbelly of criminal life that some viewers may be put off by its downbeat, distressing approach to the source material.
Carrying the movie like a well-worn overcoat is Neeson, his battered visage telling the audience all they need to know about Scudder and the kind of life he’s lived. The scenes where he’s attending various AA meetings, while appearing as no more than standard character development, are instead chances for Neeson to show a more reflective, considered approach to the character. These add subtly to the overall performance, grounding Scudder while the other characters aren’t quite so well fleshed out. Neeson is a strong, credible actor, and when he’s the focus of a movie (as he is here), then the audience will follow him anywhere, even in something as nonsensical as Non-Stop (2014).
And it helps, because while A Walk Among the Tombstones is determinedly dour, this is a movie that does itself no favours when addressing its bad guys and what they do. It’s dark, edgy stuff, and made all the more potent by the performances of Harbour and Thompson, who make Ray and his accomplice Albert two of the nastiest villains seen for a while, with the more garrulous Harbour making some truly horrifying dialogue sound even worse by virtue of Ray’s emotional and moral detachment. These guys are evil, pure and simple, and as the black heart of the movie, are incredibly effective and completely justify Jonas’s decision to jump off the roof.
With a strong, capable hero and two loathsome villains in place, it’s disappointing that the remaining characters don’t quite resonate as much. As Kenny, Stevens is oddly distant, his anger at his wife’s murder coming across as what’s expected of him rather than a real emotion (even after he’s gone through what happened). TJ is the annoying would-be sidekick with a poignant back story that threatens to derail the movie – isn’t it enough that Scudder is looking to personally redeem himself, without the added responsibility of a homeless child as well (and one who, when hospitalised, isn’t handed over to social services)? That said, Bradley does have a screen presence, and he makes the most of a potentially irritating character.
Morally complex it may be, and with drug dealers painted more sympathetically than usual, nevertheless the movie is a crime thriller, and as it ramps up the violence towards the end, the slow deliberate pace of the first half is ramped up as well, and gives the audience another chance to see Neeson in action hero mode (watch though for the table that breaks before it’s landed on). There’s a satisfying conclusion, and if another Matt Scudder movie doesn’t get made, Frank’s polished, considered outing will stand on its own as an above average entry in the private eye genre.
Rating: 8/10 – stronger and more powerful than the average crime flick, this benefits from a committed turn by Neeson and has a funereal approach that works far better than perhaps it should; confident, absorbing and persuasive, A Walk Among the Tombstones is stirring stuff and shouldn’t be missed.