Director Scott Frank Starring Liam Neeson, Dan Stevens, Boyd Holbrook, Brian Bradley, Sebastian Roche
The noir genre, at this point, has lost innovation. Not any fault of it’s own, but after being around for so long eventually ideas wear thin, and that’s when you have to start thinking outside the box. Most detective films are continually finding new direction’s to take the plot with unfamiliar setting’s, and it works, but A Walk Among The Tombstones has a different focus, embracing a minor change that’s actually been occurring for a few years now, and thankfully it works just as well.
Lawrence Block’s adaptation doesn’t just stay in the box, it seems to embrace it. This film is littered with clichés and industry standards associated with what is the new interpretation of neo-noir, but what Tombstones does different is show us a new character template by colouring it in with a different shade. No longer black, white, and grey, a new depth to the hard-boiled detective has been found.
Just like Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl I haven’t read Block’s novels, in fact I’d never heard of any of the seventeen he’s written until this film came to my attention, but from what little I learnt about them I discovered that not only is Block more than content with the adaptation, he is just as content with simply telling an entertaining story, built around solid characters, regardless of how standard it all may be. A Walk Among The Tombstones doesn’t reinvent the wheel, but it does give it a nice polish so you walk away satisfied.
It begins with a tragic bang. In New York City, 1991, Matthew Scudder (Liam Neeson) is sitting down to a coffee and two shots in a bar where the police drink free when three toughs try holding the place up. The bartender lies dead, a not-so-sober Scudder gives chase and shots are fired in a fiery opening sequence that wreaks of alcoholic recklessness. Three shots find their target, but we later learn the consequences of Scudder’s actions. After an interesting opening credits with a blonde damsel in distress we fast-forward to 1999. Scudder is retired with commendations, sober eight years, and working as an unlicensed private investigator for those who won’t, or can’t, go to the police.
All the necessary clichés and industry standards are ripe through the first two thirds of this film, as Scudder is approached in a diner by the rough-around-the-edges but nice-natured Peter Kristo (Boyd Holbrook) on behalf of his brother Kenny (Dan Stevens) with a open-and-shut case that isn’t so open-and-shut. It seems Kenny received a call from two strangers to pay for the life of his wife, only he short-changed them and she was returned in less than stellar condition. The cold and now distrusting Kenny death-stares and keeps Matt at arms length, as if this wasn’t his idea to begin with, while at the same time offering him a nice pay day to find the kidnappers so he can get his revenge, but when the cautious Scudder, using his well lived-in skills of deduction, correctly guesses Kenny’s true profession, he walks, as if this one’s a little too close to home. However, hearing a recording of the victim’s death causes a change of heart in Scudder and he takes the case.
The bang that opened the film had dissipated by this point and I was watching a single-narrative story with a single-pace unfold slowly but surely, and this would continue until the third act. However, the quietly reserved Scudder wasn’t pulling us along, his tragic past seeming to be little more than an afterthought for us and himself, and it made things feel a little dull, though I was invested in the plot and wanted to see where it all went.
Scudder’s search for clues takes mundane police work in cinema to a whole new level. Beginning his search at the local library, Matt befriends young street-smart but not-so-street-smart pseudo-intellectual vegetarian T.J (Brian Bradley), who shows great optimism about becoming a detective not long after meeting Scudder and helps navigate the wonders of technology in ’99. Though reluctant to start any sort of personal relationship with T.J, we all know deep down inside he’s got a soft spot for the kid as this case helps shed Scudder’s hard outer layers.
The investigation leads him to a cemetery, the scene of a similar crime, where Scudder speaks with grounds-keeper Jonas Loogan (Olafur Darri Olafsson), who is off-centre and unsettling. He’s hiding something and Scudder knows it, so he shadows Jonas back to his apartment building, followed close behind by T.J, who was starting to frustrate me a little, and discovers a supply shed on the roof where Jonas has some incriminating evidence in relation to the similar case. As the second act unfolded I was waiting for the stakes to raise and the film to escalate, but it never took off, and Scudder’s investigation, though the clues and how they fitted together were interesting, never carried the film forward, while Scudder was still struggling with his regret and the guilt haunting him yet never showing it save for a few AA meetings. Jonas breaking down and admitting the role he played, along with two other men, in the murder of the victim of the third case, gave us a truly troubled man who couldn’t live with what he’d done – what Scudder needed to be – but that gets taken away from us moments later when Jonas goes to feed his pigeons, while Scudder looks on in shock as if it were unexpected.
Now under the belief that the cases are all related, Scudder follows the crumbs of a fourth case to the owner of a convenience store, who was in a relationship with the victim, though after a visit to the crime scene and a mandatory roughing-up he learns the true nature of the relationship and suddenly the pieces start to fit. It was here when the film finally came to life. it wasn’t the same bang that opened proceedings, but this is not the kind of film to go too action-heavy. It still wasn’t using Scudder’s inner turmoil to propel the film, it used the plot, which made the feeling that Scudder’s character was underutilised even stronger.
Piecing the puzzle together, Scudder believes that two kidnappers are using an ill-obtained dossier of all the known traffickers in town, and you learn that kidnap and murder for this pair is nothing but a quick buck, raising the stakes a little. Scudder now has the scent and is on the prowl, despite a sudden influx of minor sub-plots, such as the undercover DEA agents, T.J stealing a gun, Matt lecturing T.J about said gun, T.J running into trouble, and T.J’s Sickle Cell Anemia, which really didn’t matter for much, though it did highlight the bond that had developed between the two. The film snowballs as Scudder pieces the evidence together, and some development takes place, including a couple of good scene’s between Scudder and Peter that made me feel a bit of sympathy for the character, though I was still waiting for Scudder’s issues to boil to the surface.
Meanwhile, we finally get our first real glimpse at the two psychopaths, Ray (David Harbour), and Albert (Adam David Thompson), who spend their days eating breakfast in their underwear and casing potential victim’s. Tragically fate gets in the way when they inadvertently come across the daughter of one target who was moments earlier deemed unsuitable. A quirky scene showcasing the mindset of the two unfurls, complimented with the music of Donovan, as if spying upon their next target is love at first sight. It was strange to say the least, completely out of left field, but it was effective to explain the “relationship” the two felt with the people they were kidnapping, and the target being a young girl only offered up even scarier parallels.
Now right into the third act, the story goes bang again as Ray & Albert enact their plot and Scudder is forced to tackle them head-on, complete with a trademark threatening phone call, which is quickly becoming an industry standard. Cleverly negotiating with Ray to ensure the girl survives, the two groups converge at the cemetery for an exchange. Tagging along for the ride is Kenny, who still maintains presence with limited and inconsistent screen-time, along with the now despondent Peter, the girl’s father / Yuri Landau (Sebastian Roche) and T.J, who is given strict instructions to stay put, but by this point we all know T.J, who was now frustrating the hell out of me, won’t follow them or else he wouldn’t be there.
We are given some insight into just how heavy Ray & Albert really are when we see the condition of the daughter, whom they trade for a sum of money. The exchange goes bad, shots are fired, and although I’m not one to champion gun violence in film some loud noises at this point really did the trick. Things change for the worse and we’re set up for a great finale, with T.J, who just couldn’t stay put, having found himself at the house of Ray & Albert, the former having taken a bullet in all the shooting, with a showcase of psychopathy from the callous Albert, who’d rather relieve himself then tend to Ray’s wounds, while Scudder & Kenny are knocking on the door.
Without giving too much away, the last scenes in the house are the best this film have to offer, offering blood, bullets, handcuffs and a meat clever, and we finally get to see how Scudder’s road to redemption parallels the journey he’s taken with the a recital of the twelve-steps, though they didn’t quite equate to the scenes we were watching. Having won the day, not just for Yuri & Kenny, but for himself, Scudder gives Kenny the final option of what to do with the villains, but inevitably he is forced into a final confrontation that rounds out the film. He returns home, T.J asleep on the couch, and looks over the young artists drawings; a superhero with a sickle on the chest, mirroring Scudder’s acknowledgement and acceptance that he’s not a superhero, so he can finally forgive himself and be at peace. He sleeps.
Liam Neeson’s portrayal is great. He’s gone from strength to strength as an action star, and every time I see “Liam Neeson with a gun” I always notice he takes a stock character and tweaks it so that it’s different every time. He doesn’t fail here, he’s made Matt Scudder different to the characters in Taken, Non-Stop or The Grey, and it’s a rare quality that makes him stand out. Scudder is a man with no mission who discovers his tragic past is not the end of the world (and neither was the Y2K bug, which appears all over the place). His struggle is never highlighted in a film, and writing this review I felt it should’ve been, but Neeson made it work, and the film’s ending offers a resolution for Scudder that I’m satisfied with. The cautiousness and hesitancy of the very delicate Scudder is something that could’ve been over the top or simply thrown to the wayside, but Neeson found the middle-ground and, although hindered by the slower parts of the film, he was able to make the character come to life. It’s refreshing to see a hard-boiled cop who doesn’t wear the trench-coat or stands in the shadows brooding; a Scudder who’s still drunk and full of self-loathing would have been a stretch. We’re way past that point, we’re watching him see the light at the end of the tunnel and passing through unscathed. He reached his lowest ebb eight years prior, he’s been trying to atone for it by bettering himself ever since, and he’s found a way. He’s a character of great depth, and it isn’t the focal point of the story but it doesn’t need to be. It’s subtle, just like Scudder.
I seriously cannot figure out Brian Bradley’s performance. His casting is out of left field, and while I see potential in him I couldn’t help but feel his portrayal was hindered by inexperience. It felt like he was portraying a character with scripted lines without the live-in feel that the others had, which I can imagine is hard to shake, but when you’re surrounded by screen veteran’s and experienced hands you’ll either sink or swim, and while he didn’t sink completely his performance wasn’t raised by the cast around him. It wasn’t all bad, definitely not the worst, but things were lacking, such as the chemistry that was needed between him and Liam Neeson, and like most young sidekicks who don’t listen to instruction he became more frustrating as the film went on. Not his fault, that’s just the way it goes. So I can forgive him; there’s a future for Bradley, and everybody’s got to start somewhere.
Dan Stevens was a mixed bag too, though again it wasn’t his own fault. Nothing about his performance was lacking, but he had limited and inconsistent screen-time, and there’s only so much character building you can put into a film, so his character came across as shallow and underdeveloped. Stevens has come a long way since Downton Abbey, and this film showcases the range he possess, I even thought he did an ok job with an accent, something I can’t really say about Liam Neeson, but this was just a bit part and I’ll hold off any stinging criticism of him until I see him in a more substantial role.
The two kidnappers, David Harbour & Adam David Thompson, manage to find a way to make the most of what little time they have on screen. In fact, even when they’re not on screen they still maintain this unsettling presence, which is what they needed to do to make the viewer understand just what kind of psychopaths we’re dealing with. Ray is the very suggestive instigator who’s poking the bear just for kicks, while Albert is so heartless to all those around him and cares only the thrill he’s seeking, and yet manages to get his character across with very little screen-time and almost no dialogue. These two are scary people in different ways, which makes them great together, and as crazy as they may seem they are formidable foes so they keep you on your toes.
Rounding out my main cast in Boyd Holbrook, who I thought did a wonderful job as Peter Kristo. The man suffered silently on the inside, and though the script didn’t address it until late in the film you could tell from Holbrook’s performance that there was this unidentified underlying tension with him. He went from being a good-natured man who had taken some wrong turns in life to a tortured soul, stealing the screen in later scenes, while the cemetery scene added tragedy into the mix. With his range on full display, Holbrook really excelled with the role he was given, bringing to life what could have been simply a disregarded supporting act. I see great things in the future of Holbrook.
The Making Of
Scott Frank is new to the world of directing, and A Walk Among The Tombstones is a good second-effort, but there are a few issues with the direction he took the film. Some parts seemed too text-book, which probably wasn’t helped by the script being pieced together using certain aspects across some of Block’s novels, so it never really took on a life of it’s own. I never felt the New York City setting was truly important, like it was a backdrop and could have been set anywhere, though Kudos to Mihai Malaimare Jr. for capturing the slums and dirty corners of the city by using night-time scenes and a rainy, dark, bleak setting to great effect.
It struggled with pacing for the first two acts, as it plodded along until the eventual breakthrough. After that it took off, though rather than escalating it came suddenly out of nowhere and didn’t stop until the last few minutes of the film. Fortunately the characters and the mystery surrounding the murder kept me invested, so I was able to forgive it for being a bit slow early on. The risk involved with that is if the character’s don’t work then the film just falls flat and you lose interest, so when things do happen you’ve been tapping your foot with impatience for too long to appreciate it, but Tombstones avoids this by making Scudder’s investigation interesting without being over the top. A very thin line to walk considering Scudder is such a reserved person, so it’s not like a giant character chock full of charisma was leading us, but the talent of Liam Neeson was able to keep it together and we got there in the end. I could say that car chases and gun-fighting would’ve helped the film out, but that usually comes at the cost of characterisation and development, and would’ve made a worse film, so Frank made a wise choice there.
The other thing that stood out was the score. Carlos Rafael Rivera did a wonderful job, as his compositions complimented the style of the film and never got in the way of the action on-screen. Certain parts had nearly no music at all, and it was a good direction to take, while other scenes had only the smallest composition behind them created emotion, tension, suspense and relief. A job well-done here.
Certain ingredients are needed for the detective story; the tragic past, the lonely diner’s, the slums, the seedy clients with ulterior motives, and the atonement of the detective themselves. Without them it’s not really a detective story, and A Walk Among The Tombstones uses all of these. It plays to it’s strengths, acknowledges all the weaknesses and rather than trying to do away with them simply uses them to it’s advantage. It’s by no means perfect, and at times it does let itself down, but it makes up for it with some solid performances and a complimentary score. Nothing truly stands out, nothing really “Oscar-worthy”, but like I said; it’s not reinventing the wheel, it simply gives it a nice polish.
6 of 10