Review: A Walk Among the Tombstones (2014)

In the opening moments of Scott Frank’s A Walk Among the Tombstones a grizzled, bearded Liam Neeson walks into a bar in the early morning, orders two shots of whisky and a coffee, and sits down in a booth facing away from the door. Soon enough two thugs enter the bar and stick up the bartender. When the bartender refuses to give them money, they shoot him in the head and Neeson springs to action, but he’s too drunk to hold onto his gun and drops it on the ground, lucky enough to avoid a shotgun blast aimed at where his head was moments before. The thugs flee, Neeson recovers his gun, and chases them into the streets, drunkenly shooting at them during his steady pursuit. The gunshots ring out loudly, reminiscent of the way Michael Mann makes gunfights really punch with his sound design. Neeson shoots the getaway driver, catches another thug in the leg, and follows the third one down a concrete staircase. The shot cuts to an over-the-shoulder view of Neeson, almost POV, as he raises his gun and points it at the thug fleeing down the stairs. The thug turns and Neeson blasts the man twice, killing him. The shot cuts to a low angle of the stairway as Neeson slowly walks down to make sure the man is dead. The frame is balanced, with the metal rail in the middle splitting the frame as Neeson walks down on the left. The title appears on the screen.

The opening of a film tells you a lot about what’s to come next, and in only two minutes A Walk Among the Tombstones shattered my expectations for it. I realized the film was not going to be a Taken-style actioner where the action was weightless and the major joy was watching Liam Neeson punish cartoonish villains. A Walk Among the Tombstones would prove to be both far more complex and far darker than I had anticipated, with some seriously daring filmmaking on display throughout.

The film is based on a novel by Lawrence Block, who wrote a series of hard boiled crime novels about private detective Matt Scudder, played by Liam Neeson as a no-nonsense, sober man doing favours for people in exchange for gifts, as he styles his private investigator work. Scudder isn’t licensed. He doesn’t carry a gun and illegally uses his old badge as a means to get people to talk to him. He used to be an alcoholic but he’s eight years sober. You often see him attending AA meetings and recounting his story from the pre-title sequence. Scudder is a familiar type in detective fiction, but that doesn’t mean the film uses him in only typical ways. So much of A Walk Among the Tombstones is superficially conventional, but at every turn, the film gives an interesting twist on the conventions. Whether it’s how it’s shot, how a conversation between Scudder and a plucky young street kid (Brian “Astro” Bradley) plays out, or even how its seedy criminals are characterized, director Scott Frank (who previously directed The Lookout and wrote Minority Report and Out of Sight) presents the conventional moment, then goes a little deeper or underplays it or inverts the convention.

The film follows Scudder into an investigation of kidnapped and murdered wives of drug lords. A drug trafficker (Dan Stevens) hires Neeson to find the men who kidnapped and killed his wife, and Scudder eventually is on the trail of two men who can’t help but cut up the women they’ve kidnapped, even once they’ve received the ransom money from the husbands. The film doesn’t shy away from the horror of what these two men do to the women. There’s one music cue that is particularly bold during a scene following the killers, using Donovan’s “Atlantis” (most famously used in the Billy Batts sequence of Goodfellas) to cue the revelation of the two killers and giving it a whole new twisted meaning. Viewers can be excused for thinking the film goes one step too far in certain instances, but I found it arresting for a film to show just how awful its villains are without ever glorifying their killings or becoming exploitation when showing what they’re doing. A Walk Among the Tombstones makes you think you’ve seen a lot more gore than you have by the end of it, and I’m thankful for its decision to tell more than show.

Here is a smart film, proving that genre films can have a little more on their mind than pure entertainment even while fulfilling their genre obligations. A Walk Among the Tombstones is the work of a talented filmmaker, showcasing interesting camera technique, haunting sound design and playing with hard boiled conventions to create something genuinely provocative. I believe the film will prove to be a minor classic of the genre.

8 out of 10

A Walk Among the Tombstones (2014, USA)

Written and directed by Scott Frank; based on the novel by Lawrence Block; starring Liam Neeson, Dan Stevens, Boyd Holbrook, Sebastian Roché, David Harbour, Adam David Thompson, and Brian “Astro” Bradley.