Although there are several scenes that are clearly tailored to Liam Neeson’s “special set of skills” where the veteran actor gets a bunch of speeches where he can pithily and rightfully but both heroes and villains in their place, there’s a freshness to his latest thriller, A Walk Among the Tombstones. It’s a bleak, gradually unrelenting work from Scott Frank, the writer of cinematic adaptations of Get Shorty, Out of Sight, and Minority Report, who makes his first feature film since the wildly underrated 2007 film The Lookout. Here’s hoping it doesn’t take almost ten more years before he makes another one because he’s quite good at it. It’s a film that uses a typecast leading man perfectly, while allowing that actor to tackle more interesting material than he has been handed in quite some time.
The year is 1999 and Matt Scudder (Neeson) has been retired from the NYPD and sober for eight years following a tragic incident that left him with commendations from his peers, but personally conflicted feelings. Now working as an under-the-radar and unlicensed private investigator, Scudder has been called to the home of a drug trafficker (Dan Stevens) who recently had his wife kidnapped and murdered despite paying the ransom money demanded of him. Hesitant to get involved at first, Scudder finds himself moved to take the case when he discovers the crime is the work of a pair of serial killers that are posing as DEA agents to target the mostly innocent loved ones of dealers.
This adaptation of a Lawrence Block potboiler certainly benefits from the presence of Neeson and Frank’s talents as a filmmaker since the story itself isn’t all that memorable on its own. Block has never really been one of the better writers in his genre, often straying towards the icky, sometimes exploitative side of things. The film maintains a lot of that ickiness and grotesquerie, but at least Frank understands how to frame it properly. Settling on a tone that brings to mind the 70s and 80s work of William Friedkin and John Frankenheimer, mixed with a healthy dose of Italian giallo mastery, Frank understands that his own screenplay is coming from a dark, nasty place from which little light is allowed to shine.
This vision of New York is still several years away from being cleaned up, and much like the hero, is going through an awkward transitional phase. In many ways on a subtextual and historical level, Frank is accomplishing quite wonderfully what Andrew Dominik almost accomplished with Killing Them Softly and what Scott Cooper miserably failed to do last year with Out of the Furnace. There’s an undercurrent that’s open to speaking about the economic divide that leads people to do illegal things for money, here melded with a discussion about how before September 11th Americans had a preoccupation with fears that only seem innocuous now in hindsight while losing sight of bigger, more dangerous issues. The details of the case aren’t divulged from cinematic plot points, but from Scudder acting like a true detective and talking to people to gradually suss out the situation. In that respect, it becomes a fascinating walking tour of NYC and not just the titular graveyard setting that ties the story and the case together.
Despite the salacious material and constant bloodletting (the film isn’t for the squeamish or easily offended, but most of the grisliest stuff takes place off camera), Frank has crafted a wonderful and gorgeous looking New York story. The cinematography from Mihai Malaimare Jr. (who shot The Master and the last three films from Francis Ford Coppola) and the haunting, but never oppressive score from Carlos Rafael Rivera (delivering his first feature length score in an impressive debut) bring out the most in the material and the stunning production design choices. It looks every bit like late 90s New York and purposefully seeks out dilapidated buildings and mansions alike that fit the visual motif. It’s a great fall and winter movie, often rainy at night and chilly without being cold during the day.
And Neeson’s the perfect choice for a hardboiled and haunted gumshoe who keeps getting referred to in the same breath as Sam Spade and Philip Marlowe within the text. His craggy face and a weather beaten corduroy coat to match, Neeson gets the chance to do a lot more subtle character work here, and it’s easily his best performance since The Grey and a career highlight. It’s the rare genre film that’s worthy of his talents for arm-breaking action and heartbreaking emotion.
He surrounded by a game cast of character actors who fill their roles nicely, particularly Stevens as the unlikable, but still sympathetic drug runner out for revenge and Brian “Astro” Bradley (who previously surprised this year in the underrated family adventure Earth to Echo) as a homeless kid that Scudder takes on as an on-the-streets protégée. Gradually the film fills up with more characters than it might know what to do with, but that’s vastly preferable to a thriller that gives in to plot convenience and convoluted ethics.
A Walk Among the Tombstones is nothing if not a solid, even handed effort from a filmmaker who should really be making more movies. Frank has an immense amount of talent as a writer, but gauging from his work here, he should be directing a lot more than it does. It takes someone of considerable skill to give audiences both a typical Liam Neeson picture that they’ve come to expect (right down to a kidnapping plot with sexualized overtones and kids in danger) and to then give that same audience a better class of film than a reheated version of something that’s already been done. Hopefully he can do this again for another bestselling author and established leading man sooner rather than later.