Starring: Liam Neeson, Dan Stevens, David Harbour & Boyd Holbrook
Directed by: Scott Frank
Distributed by: Universal Pictures
Release Date: September 2014
Running Time: 114 mins
Synopsis: Private investigator Matthew Scudder is hired by a drug trafficker to find those responsible for the kidnap and murder of his wife. Following the trail Scudder uncovers some dark secrets leading him to think that his employer’s wife was not the first victim and her murderers are going to strike again. Can he stop them before they claim another victim?
Based upon the Lawrence Block novel of the same name, A Walk Among the Tombstones is a gritty neo-noir that combines elements from the classic hard-boiled detective movies, such as The Big Sleep and The Maltese Falcon, alongside darker criminal thrillers, such as Seven and The Silence of the Lambs. Liam Neeson stars as Matt Scudder, a recovering alcoholic and un-licenced private detective who finds himself working cases for those who need help off the books. Neeson imbues Scudder with his trademark tough guy charm, but the character is more damaged and world-weary than that of Bryan Mills from the Taken movies. Haunted by a tragedy in his past, Scudder is less gung-ho than previous Neeson characters, more willing to talk a suspect out of stabbing him with a knife than simply blowing him away with a magnum.
Scudder spends most of the movie on the hunt for two sadist serial killers who are kidnapping the wives of drug dealers and butchering them. The horror is seldom shown on-screen, living instead in the imaginations of the viewers, but the brief glimpses of the predator with their prey is intensely unsettling. David Harbour (later of Stranger Things fame) is the more vocal of the pair, delivering a genuinely creepy performance as the deranged killer, whilst Adam David Thompson offers a more muted (but no less disturbing) performance as his silent partner. The film doesn’t dwell too much on motivations for the pair, forcing viewers to speculate on what led them down this path, but they are utterly mesmerizing on-screen – evoking memories of Buffalo Bill from The Silence of the Lambs.
Some would say that most Liam Neeson movies are some variation on the template first established in Taken, and if that were the case, I would say that A Walk Among the Tombstones is a much darker, slower-paced interpretation of that movie. Scudder is driven, but not as emotionally invested in the situation as Bryan Mills was, and he favours his wits over a firearm. Of course, the film features a ‘Liam Neeson phone call’ moment when he attempts to negotiate with the kidnappers, but it isn’t as iconic as his call in Taken. Most of the film’s violence takes place in the final act of the film, and even then it feels smaller (and more realistic) in scope than Neeson’s other action films. This is a detective film first and foremost, so adrenaline junkies may find themselves still craving a hit once the credits appear. Personally, I loved this more subdued and atmospheric approach.
The film boasts some extremely beautiful cinematography under Scott Frank’s direction with wide angles and evocative camera views adding a sense of unease to Scudder’s journeys through the city. The eerie atmosphere absolutely just radiates from the TV screen giving the pre-millennium New York setting a very tangible feel; again much like David Fincher’s work on the films Seven and Zodiac, the city feels like an active character within the story itself as it reflects the darkness of those criminals who hide within it. Despite being made in 2014, the film feels older than its years – partly due to its setting of late 1999, and also due to its Dirty Harry-esque vibe of dubious anti-heroes and ultra-violent criminals.
As per the books, Scudder befriends a streetwise homeless youth named TJ who ends up assisting him in the investigation. These interactions between the two offer a slightly more hopeful and optimistic sub-plot which dovetails nicely against the darker elements of the film – Neeson pulls off the role of stoic mentor extremely well, and Astro’s turn as TJ avoids all of the typical ‘kid sidekick’ trappings occasionally found in the genre. With little comfort to be found in the events of the main plot, this secondary story-arc provides a sense of redemption for Scudder’s character and his tragic past. I’d read that the film originally intended to have Ruth Wilson as a love interest for Scudder, but I think the relationship with TJ works better and gives Neeson a ‘loner’ quality that fits his ex-alcoholic private investigator persona.
Skillfully demonstrating his ability to inject pathos into the gruffest of anti-heroes, Liam Neeson is the ideal choice for this Matt Scudder adaptation and while on the surface, it resembles his turn as Brian Mills in Taken, it is a much more nuanced and understated performance. Despite – or perhaps because of – the lack of action scenes, A Walk Among the Tombstones is a riveting watch and a masterclass in how to sustain tension and unease through cinematography and performances. Haunting and thrilling in equal measure, the film focuses on the evil things that men do (especially to women) and the unsettling depths that some criminals can descend to. Extremely Fincher-esque in style, it left a lasting mark on me and rates above Taken as one of Neeson’s strongest “aging anti-hero” performances.