Wednesday, March 11, 2015

A Walk Among the Tombstones Movie Review

Played in all earnestness as a tribute to the private investigator sub-genre of crime fiction, Scott Frank’s adaptation (which he also directed) of Lawrence Block’s A Walk Among the Tombstones is about as grim and nihilistic a treatment as you’re likely to see in a mainstream movie. The character Matt Scudder featured in more than a dozen of Block’s books and some of those have been adapted to the screen before. But Frank, who is no stranger to pulp fiction and mystery stories involving a tough PI (Frank wrote the screenplay adaptations of both Get Shorty and Out of Sight), doesn’t bother trying to reinvent the genre or to put a new spin on it. A Walk Among the Tombstones is effective classic mystery storytelling. It’s more hard-edged and just plain evil than any adaptation of Philip Marlowe or Sam Spade ever was, but the hallmarks are there.

Liam Neeson, that new millennium presence of cinema toughness masking a cuddly interior, plays Scudder, an ex-cop brought down by alcohol and a tragic on the job accident years ago. He’s not a licensed PI, but rather does “favors” for people and receives “gifts” for his efforts. One of his AA buddies, a young heroin addict named Peter (Boyd Holbrook) introduces him to his brother Kenny (Dan Stevens), a drug trafficker whose wife was kidnapped for ransom and mutilated after Kenny haggled over the price. He wants Scudder to find the killers and bring them to him, presumably so he can do likewise to them.

There are really no outright white hat heroes in this story. Scudder is covering a checkered past. He wants to do right, but even in the end his attempt at abiding by his own ethical code is compromised in favor of doing what any reasonable person in the audience wants him to do. Kenny is a victim and we sense his loss and feel for him while never forgetting that he’s a criminal. Frank’s screenplay and Stevens’ performance render Kenny as human: flawed and deserving of sympathy. The most clearly defined characters in terms of which side of the line between good and evil they stand on are the two killers – sociopaths who don’t even seem to derive any pleasure out of what they do. They do it more out of a workaday sort of obligation. Frank has this fascinatingly unsettling way of presenting their actions as just all in a day’s work. There appears to be nothing extraordinary about it. They surveil a target, they clean their instruments, which I hesitate to even refer to as weapons because I don’t think they see it that way.

I like that Frank chose to set the film in 1999 New York, smack in the middle of Rudy Giuliani’s reign as Mayor during which he made it a crusade to clean up the city. So we have here a story of awful depravity, of terrible human beings operating in the midst of the city’s renaissance. The specter of Y2K looms (although it’s mentioned and alluded to far too often), a fear that seems quaint by today’s standards considering the terrible events still in the city’s future at that point. The closing shot winks at that fact by showing the Manhattan skyline with the Twin Towers still standing. The Y2K threat becomes an ironic footnote because not only is the real danger of the film’s present on the streets, but the future was still to bring something worse.

The film could have done without the presence of a teenager named T.J. (Brian “Astro” Bradley), who becomes something of a sidekick to Scudder. He’s a homeless kid who comes across as too cute and too impossible. He’s one of those stock characters who is revealed to be surprisingly more intelligent and more literate than he probably should be, meaning to upend Scudder’s and our expectations. But he name drops Sam Spade and Philip Marlowe – twice – and generally doesn’t add much to the story.

The setting of this film is unapologetically a man’s world. Women’s roles here are as victims and fodder for maniacs. I have to commend Frank for not taking his depiction of violence toward women into lurid and potentially titillating territory. A Walk Among the Tombstones may not pass the Bechdel Test, but that the violence directed at women is mostly kept off camera helps focus the story more on character and values.

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