Directed by: Scott Frank
Premise: Based on the book by Lawrence Block. Private investigator Matt Scudder (Liam Neeson) is hired by a drug dealer to find the men who murdered the dealer’s wife. As Scudder investigates, he discovers a pattern of missing and murdered women.
What Works: Over the last few years, actor Liam Neeson has reinvented himself as an action hero through a steady stream of movies like Taken, The A-Team, and Non-Stop. A Walk Among the Tombstones is consistent with the titles on Neeson’s action resume but this film is of a slightly different timbre. Like many of the characters Neeson plays, Matt Scudder is a man haunted by mistakes of his past. In Neeson’s other action roles, the character is usually redeemed through violence. That isn’t quite the case A Walk Among the Tombstones. Scudder frequently diffuses tensions and talks his way out of violent situations; in that respect Neeson’s part in this film is nearly the inverse of his role in the Taken pictures in which he goes on killing sprees and takes life without hesitation or consequence. The regard for violence in A Walk Among the Tombstones is one of the film’s more interesting qualities. This is an extremely violent picture and the torture and mutilation of women figures prominently into the plot. However, the filmmakers have found ways to convey the horror of violent misogyny without becoming exploitative. The torture is generally suggested and when violence against female victims is portrayed it is done so in a way that keeps the viewer’s sympathies with the victim. Amid all of this violence, A Walk Among the Tombstones suggests a moral complexity that goes beyond what an action film usually provides. Most of the characters of this movie are compromised in some way and they are imperfect beings who attempt to redeem themselves but often find that they are sinking further into depravity instead of rising above it.
What Doesn’t: A Walk Among the Tombstones is a detective movie but it does not have very much detective work in it. After initially taking the case and interviewing several witnesses, Scudder does not have to do very much. There is very little mystery to the movie and the plot unfolds with few twists or surprises. Instead of having to tease information out of his interviewees or study the evidence, most of the clues and witnesses fall into the detective’s lap. Characters come to him directly and they rarely resist when interrogated. This film also suffers from some glaring plot holes. The very premise of the movie is strange. The movie posits that a drug dealer, who viewers would expect to retain his own posse of thugs and hit men, would go to a private detective when his wife is murdered. This certainly violates all established Hollywood logic with regard to portrayals of drug dealers but it strains real life credibility as well. A Walk Among the Tombstones also suffers from a lot of coincidences and misplaced storylines. Characters show up in places conveniently and several subplots are introduced only to be abandoned, mostly notably federal agents who show up for just one scene to warn Scudder that he is out of his element and then disappear from the story entirely. A Walk Among the Tombstones establishes Liam Neeson’s character as a recovering alcoholic but the filmmakers fail to do anything interesting with his sobriety. At no point does he seem likely to fall off the wagon. The filmmakers use the Alcoholics Anonymous mantra, contrasting the voice over with the violence of the movie’s finale with the intention of adding profundity to their picture. It doesn’t work out and whatever point is supposed to be derived from that juxtaposition isn’t apparent.
Bottom Line: A Walk Among the Tombstones is an interesting piece of neo-noir filmmaking. The picture is equally part hardboiled detective story and part torture film but it succeeds less at the former and more at the latter. It’s a flawed movie but despite the violence there is humanity and intelligence at its center.
Episode: #510 (September 28, 2014)