Friday, September 19, 2014
The last time we saw private eye Matthew Scudder, he had a sunnier disposition and resembled Jeff Bridges. This was in his first film appearance, 1986's nasty 8 Million Ways to Die (Hal Ashby's muddled final movie, written by Oliver Stone and a pseudonymous Robert Towne). Nearly 30 years on, Liam Neeson plays the detective in the unbelievably grimmer A Walk Among the Tombstones. It's a serviceable throwback to cult detective thrillers from the 70s like The Long Goodbye or Night Moves, movies with a flawed antihero at the center of a mystery that's really just an excuse to meet a cast of quirky supporting characters. So who better to direct it than Scott Frank, screenwriter for a number crime films based on literary potboilers and chock full of such eccentrics: Get Shorty, Heaven's Prisoners, Out of Sight, and the never-aired pilot for Hoke.
Frank emphasizes Scudder's struggles with alcoholism in much the same way Ashby did with Bridges. But by returning the character back to the New York environs of Lawrence Block's mystery novels, Frank stays truer to Scudder's literary origins, supplying A Walk Among the Tombstones with a grimy crust that highlights the morally relativism of its protagonist. When drug dealer, Kenny Kristo (Dan Stevens) interviews Scudder for a job, he asks the former cop whether he left because of the corruption and bribery. Scudder replies "Without it, I wouldn't have been able to support my family." With that one line of dialogue, Neeson easily gets us to buy into what must have been a much harder character to sell for the younger, surfer-like Bridges in the L.A. setting of 8 Million Ways to Die.
The drawback is that we've seen this type of world-weary detective before. Scudder is not too different than Raymond Chandler's Philip Marlowe or Dashiell Hammett's Sam Spade. He just works in an even more corrupt milieu made even more overtly frightening by the portentous End-of-Days theories associated with its 1999 setting's Y2K conspiracy theories. One of A Walk Among the Tombstone's more problematic aspects is the nature of the crimes themselves. Kenny and a number of other drug dealers are being extorted for considerable amounts of cash after an otherwise bland duo kidnaps their wives. Unable to bring the cops into it, Kenny enlists his brother Peter (Boyd Holbrook)—an addict acquaintance to Scudder by way of his AA meetings—to recruit the gumshoe. Not one of the females (well, maybe a waitress) in A Walk Among the Tombstones is provided with any dialogue that isn't delivered without a gasp, scream or a sigh. Most of them are sexually assaulted, killed, chopped up, and wrapped in baggies by the vaguely homosexual perpetrators even after they collect their ransom. That's misogyny and homophobia, two disgusting forms of discrimination for the price of one.
Still, it's undeniable that if you can look past the story's extremely distasteful elements, A Walk Among the Tombstones is replete with fine performances. As Kenny, Stevens delineates his drug dealer so clearly with aspirations towards bourgeois ideals that his guilt for stubbornly shorting the kidnappers on their ransom becomes a point for us to empathize with him not view him as some callous monster. Holbrook overcomes the twitchier characteristics of his addict Peter by playing up his adulterous love for his brother's late wife. And Ólafur Darri Ólafsson is amazing in his all too brief turn as a creepy cemetery groundskeeper. His eerie conversations with Scudder, structured around impressionistic flashbacks depicting his encounters with the two killers, are the glue which holds A Walk Among the Tombstones together and possibly allow it to transcend some of its more vile qualities.
For Neeson, A Walk Among the Tombstones represents his best chance to get away from the kind of incredible, vengeful hero he's become known for since making Taken. Scudder is the kind of guy who gets into fights and rarely comes out unbloodied. He possesses the tempestuous inner life of a recovering alcoholic, something which helps elevate the movie in what would be an otherwise cliche finale structured around Alcoholics Anonymous' 12 Steps. This dense third act isn't necessarily enough to erase A Walk Among the Tombstone's dubious characterizations of females and gays, but it hints at something to improve upon should Neeson and Frank manage to turn this into a Scudder franchise.