It turns out the title of this film, taken from American mystery writer Lawrence Block’s 1992 book from which it is adapted, is pretty apt. This is a slow paced crime thriller with a dark atmosphere, sporting perhaps a little less action that you might expect from Liam Neeson lately, although there are a fair few bloody corpses. Neeson takes on the role of Matthew Scudder, a taciturn former New York cop and recovering alcoholic, working as an unlicensed private investigator. This is not the character’s first screen outing, the other (1986’s 8 Million Ways to Die) was a flop despite having Jeff Bridges, Oliver Stone co-writing, and Hal Ashby directing. The two films do share a common producer in John Hyde, who also worked on Neverending Story and Short Circuit, although that’s about where the similarities end. Writer and Director Scott Frank, responsible for screenplays such as The Interpreter and The Wolverine, sticks a little more to the source material here and evokes a suitably 90s vibe for the drama to unfold around.
The story kicks off when Scudder is pushed into a case by fellow Alcoholics Anonymous member Howie, Eric Nelsen. A troubled and relapsing soul, Howie wants Scudder to find the kidnappers of his brother’s wife. The brother, Kenny, paid a hefty ransom – he’s in the ‘construction’ business – but not enough to get his wife back in one piece. Though reluctant to get involved with drug dealers, Scudder is abhorred by the killers’ actions and delves further into their dark world. He is assisted on occasion by local homeless kid TJ, US X Factor contestant Brian Bradley, who begins to look up to him. David Harbour, End of Watch and Quantum of Solace, and Adam David Thompson, +1, are delightfully deranged as the sadistic serial killers in question, bent on ruining the lives of New York drug traffickers.
Being based on a hardboiled detective novel, the film takes some cues from Noir form. There really aren’t a lot of good guys in the story, and while Scudder wants to help the families terrorised by this twisted vigilante duo, the fact remains that he is working with drug traffickers. The man himself is pretty withdrawn, yet he is rarely allowed to be the lone Noir detective, with TJ or Howie frequently needing or giving help. It is a pretty grim world, Scudder’s New York. The general public lives in fear of Y2K, and the serial killer pair continue to prey on the criminal underworld. The perpetually cloudy days drag on and the case has ups and downs. The pace of the story and the editing is considered throughout, building until the end, and only then do the bullets really fly.
The few moments that broke the tension were those intended to develop TJ’s character, and felt vaguely out of place. However, the story remains interesting, despite the mystery itself being not that inventive, and the film’s dark environment is tightly crafted. The slightly dated cars, decor and technology help to conjure a stale but familiar setting, and the production feels deliberately like it could have come straight from the late 90s. The music too, by Carlos Rafael Rivera with his first score, is at times tacky and jarring but strangely congruent.
A Walk Among the Tombstones is, for its majority, a dark and mature thriller that tips it’s hat to old Neo Noir. Neeson, by the way, is great as always, and the rest of the cast hold it together well. I’m pleased to say this is a decent film, and a little different to everything else around at the moment. It’s nicely self-contained too, although it sounds like there are sequels in the works.