***/**** Image A Sound A Extras C-
starring Liam Neeson, Dan Stevens, David Harbour, Boyd Holbrook
screenplay by Scott Frank, based on the novel by Lawrence Block
directed by Scott Frank
by Bryant Frazer First, let's be clear about what kind of movie A Walk Among the Tombstones is. The film's signature image is that of a blonde woman, nude or nearly nude, atop a white bed. A man caresses her slowly, runs his fingers through her hair, and nuzzles her face. If we watch closely, we eventually notice that she cringes at his touch. As new camera angles afford us a better look at the tableau, we notice the bed is covered in plastic. Two men are watching the woman. And her mouth is taped closed. The newly-disturbing scene is photographed with a luxe aesthetic--soft light, lush bokeh, off-axis shot compositions--that suggests a commercial for pharmaceuticals, if not early-'90s Playboy Channel programming. The intended irony is clear enough, but the coyness makes the scene ugly. After a close-up on the woman's dirty feet, the camera cuts to a view of her face, looking directly into the camera, as her body is being pushed at, rhythmically, from just outside the frame. The question, then, is whether she's being raped, dismembered, or eviscerated.
This is a genuinely nasty bit of business, not least because the victim in question is easily the best role for a woman in A Walk Among the Tombstones. No other female character gets quite as much screentime as poor Leila Alvarez (Laura Birn), a college student who ends up (spoiler!) getting cut into pieces and strewn across a Brooklyn cemetery. Women in this film are waitresses, cashiers, librarians, and wives, unless and until they become victims--the meat that puts the story in motion. The use of sexual violence as a backdrop for the opening titles is a deliberate shock tactic, and it's every bit as disturbing as intended by writer-director Scott Frank (whose credit appears on screen after a final cut to black). Adapting Lawrence Block's 1992 novel, Frank jettisoned one female character entirely, then wrote in another who ended up on the cutting-room floor. Partly as a result of its lack of anything like an actual female character, the resulting film is a real throwback, a hard-boiled detective drama about men doing manly things in a man's world.
Liam Neeson's Matt Scudder, an ex-cop who quit the badge after accidentally shooting an innocent bystander, wrestles with the ghosts of his alcohol addiction. He becomes a surrogate father figure for T.J. (Brian 'Astro' Bradley), a wise-ass street kid who punctures his gruff exterior and finds the kindness underneath. And he has a damsel to save, the latest in a series of pretty young things who are being mutilated at the hands of a pair of fussy, sadistic psychopaths (David Harbour and Adam David Thompson) coded as gay--thus offering a soupçon of homophobia to mingle with the whiff of misogyny already in the air. The stereotypes feel less outright offensive than they do merely anachronistic. Set mostly in 1999, A Walk Among the Tombstones seems a decade or more older than that.
In many ways, that's a compliment. This is a slow-burning crime thriller with uniformly intelligent, entertaining performances, one that takes the time to let its gumshoe do some of the legwork required to make the connections that help bring a case together. If you admire Hollywood thrillers of the late-1960s and 1970s, this one tastes like comfort food. The neat set-up involves a client named Kenny Kristo (Dan Stevens) whose wife was kidnapped and murdered, but who can't go to the FBI because he's a drug dealer. Scudder refuses the case at first, in a terrifically well-performed scene that propels the story forward at the same time it probes character and unloads backstory. Stevens presents with a pinched scowl that seems to barely obscure a wave of rage swelling just beneath the surface. As they converse, we learn that Scudder was a cop on the take before he became an unlicensed private agent. ("Sometimes I do favours for people and sometimes, in return, they give me gifts.") Only when the truly horrific nature of the crime in question becomes apparent does Scudder spring to life and tackle the investigation.
Neeson has been coasting for the better part of a decade on the preposterous but compulsively watchable action hero he created at the age of 55 for Taken--a steely-voiced, highly-competent superman finely reconfigured here as a wretch seeking enlightenment out of a sense of wrecked professionalism. Frank's screenplay shoehorns in a third-act recital of all 12 steps of Alcoholics Anonymous, literally stopping the action dead for each one as the film rumbles towards its climax, and somehow the gimmick isn't risible. Neeson finds real gravity in this character's commitment to sobriety, and Frank's script deftly provides him the raw material to convey it. The pleasures of the story come in its minor but confident deviations from the genre-film playbook, as when Scudder calmly explains to another man scrambling to pay ransom for his daughter--a poised 14-year-old snatched by the dastardly duo--that the girl is in all likelihood already dead. Scudder's directness and lack of sentimentality is somehow cheering, grim though his message be.
This is the Liam Neeson Show, though a handful of supporting players make an impression, most notably Ólafur Darri Ólafsson as the cemetery groundskeeper who discovered Leila's remains, and who has a memorable rooftop confrontation with Scudder. Speaking of that rooftop, the genuine New York locations, many in Brooklyn rather than Manhattan, add a lot of atmosphere to Scudder's urban environs. The setting would be about half as interesting were it transferred to Los Angeles, as was Hal Ashby's earlier, Oliver Stone-scripted stab at bringing this character to the screen, a Jeff Bridges vehicle called 8 Million Ways to Die. And cinematographer Mihai Malaimare Jr. (The Master) gives the film a vintage look to go with Frank's largely old-school narrative approach, shooting with modern digital cameras but using old Panavision lenses. The combination gets great variety out of a deliberately drab colour palette, especially in darker scenes with light and shadow slashing diagonally across the screen.
Yet Frank isn't always successful at distinguishing his film from your usual New York City crime thriller. Scenes with T.J., Kid P.I., suffer from an overly familiar approach to the stock character pairing with Scudder as predictably gruff mentor, including the requisite scene where the youngster teaches the geezer how to use the Internet. In a move perhaps partly inspired by The Vanishing, the picture spends a surprising amount of time with the killers, going so far as to depict their domestic life together--a gambit that would be more effective if the couple came across as passably ordinary New Yorkers rather than arch, arrogant cartoons. (Reading one of the film's many prominently-placed newspaper headlines about pre-Y2K hysteria, one of them murmurs, "People are afraid of all the wrong things," which makes him feel like a mouthpiece for the director.)
A Walk Among the Tombstones is also larded with stylistic flourishes that draw attention away from its solid narrative core. A friend should have taken Frank aside and warned him that, post-Goodfellas, it's more than a little hacky to score a scene in your period New York City crime drama with "Atlantis," no matter if the slo-mo Wes Anderson rip is meant as a perverse takedown of the utopian Donovan tune. But that's a minor offense compared to the creepy sexualized violence I've already discussed. I'm a huge fan of many films in which even more terrible things happen to men, women, and sometimes children, but something about the self-consciously ironic approach here (Frank has one of the killers lasciviously display the loop of cheesewire with which a woman will have one breast severed, although the actual action occurs just outside of frame) feels gratuitous, gross, and cynical. It's not that the violence is hard to take--it is, and it should be--but more that the scene is so in love with its clever aesthetics. Arguably even more egregious is the final shot, drawing back from Scudder's apartment to reveal a storybook horizon featuring the full New York City skyline, with a small flock of birds flapping across the screen to draw your attention to the silhouette of the Twin Towers, just in case you hadn't noticed them yet. The conspicuously featured World Trade Center is fast becoming the most egregious and offensive cliché of period pieces set in pre-9/11 New York--an ostentatious bid for unearned significance. Fortunately, A Walk Among the Tombstones is solid enough as a grim genre exercise to withstand its many missteps.
THE BLU-RAY DISC
Universal's 2.40:1, 1080p Blu-ray presentation of A Walk Among the Tombstones is a handsome piece of work, ably reproducing the movie's gentle colour gradients and soft-focus backgrounds for home viewing. Spooky scenes set in Green-Wood Cemetery after dark capture Malaimare's high key-lighting schemes and their attendant high-contrast, deliberately-crushed blacks, while the shadow detail that is meant to be visible looks strikingly crisp and clean. The film was shot digitally, so film grain is a non-issue--fortunately, since Universal's track record on dealing with grain in catalogue titles is not so good--but some of the darker interior shots do display a very fine noise pattern, presumably an artifact from pushing digital sensors to see farther into the darkness. Optical artifacts are in evidence, too, such as a mild blurring effect imposed on some shots by the DP's choice of vintage glass, as well as other anamorphic-lens characteristics that help give the image its personality. Audio quality of the 5.1 DTS-HD MA track is top notch. Dialogue and effects tracks are exceptionally clear, and the surrounds are put to constant use, either adding subtle ambience or sending traffic noise and bullet hits ricocheting around your living room.
Extras are limited to two short, EPK-style featurettes. "A Look Behind the Tombstones" is 12 minutes of your standard studio-publicity fodder, interspersing B-roll footage from behind the scenes with talking-head interviews largely revolving around what a great talent Liam Neeson is. Someone refers to "the books," but unless I missed it, Lawrence Block's name is never mentioned. Instead, he's pushed off to the Blu-ray-exclusive "Matt Scudder: Private Eye", a six-minute affair in which Frank, producer Stacey Sher, and Block discuss A Walk Among the Tombstones the novel and the Scudder series as a whole. A DVD and redemption code for an Ultraviolet or iTunes copy of the film is also in the Blu-ray case. And that's it--but though no trailer is included, a series of random previews for other titles materializes whenever you spin up the disc.