A Walk Among the Tombstones
Directed by Scott Frank
Released in 2014
There is something to be said of knowing your job and doing it well. That is the draw of an old-school, R-rated thriller like A Walk Among the Tombstones, the latest installment in the ongoing and glorious ReNeesonance.
If you pity me enough to still be reading, know that Google returned no results for that word, so I’m claiming it. And we got to call the last few years something, right? Since 2008’s Taken, Liam Neeson has starred in an improbable number of action films, first as an Old Testament-angry father figure and then, with 2012’s The Grey and this year’s Non-Stop, as a disgraced enforcer who starts each film at rock bottom and slowly redeems himself through wit, instinct and shocking physicality. He smuggles a lot of pain into these archetypes, but these films keep getting made because, like all true movie stars, Liam Neeson does one thing the public wants to see again and again: He kicks ass.
Like the cult of Breaking Bad’s Walter White, the paeans to Neeson’s badassery have resounded through culture with queasy insinuations: Violence is awesome, morality is black-and-white and women are helpless or, in Skyler White’s case, shrill nags. This response has less to do with the texts in question than the appropriations of them, which strangle out any nuance with a macho fist. But as exhilarating as Taken was and still is, those readings stick, which is why the uptick in quality (a.k.a. complexity) in Neeson’s films since The Grey has been most welcome, if scarcely noticed.
A Walk Among the Tombstones, an adaptation of Lawrence Block’s novel of the same name, suffers from a few careless lapses into cliché and does not set its ambitions too high to begin with, but it may be the most moral movie yet of the ReNeesonance (I just shuddered typing that again). Neeson plays Matthew Scudder, a former police officer and now unlicensed detective tasked with finding the pair of serial killers who kidnapped and, after taking a ransom, murdered the wife of drug trafficker Kenny Kristo (Downton Abbey’s Dan Stevens). The story goes through the procedural motions, but because Neeson and director Scott Frank know what they are doing, it is often unfairly compelling.
This is one of those movies to fail the Bechdel test (which only serves macro-industrial critique, not individual artistic analysis anyhow) for a reason. Look at the opening credits: The camera pans over a young woman’s pale, nude body, which is washed out from oversaturated lighting. A hand reaches into these frames to caress her hair and skin, and the sensitivity of his touch looks almost loving. Yet the woman does not move apart from breathe, and the single tear rolling down her face hints at something off. The final shot of this sequence tilts up to show us her mouth, which is silenced with duct tape, and for the first time we see both of her eyes, piercing us with terror.
Psychopathy, victimization, the male gaze, the opening titles from Hitchcock’s Vertigo and the shower scene from Psycho: many keywords apply. The credits upend expectation and frame the violence that follows as caused not by an excess of men but by an absence of women. Since the serial killers target drug traffickers only, due to their reluctance to phone authorities, camaraderie develops between the male criminals whose wives and daughters have been taken from them. They relish in the opportunity to harm the murderers, as shown when Kenny inspects a butcher’s cleaver just as the pair earlier fondled wire, handcuffs and linoleum knives in Dexter-esque slow motion.
This is all to say that you, the viewer, very much want these serial killers to die, too. Over a slow but deliberate 113 minutes, this film whips you into a bloodthirsty frenzy, where you eagerly root for Scudder to compromise his morality in order to realize brutal, satisfying ends. The movie gets darker and darker up to its seemingly saccharine final scene, which features a drawing by TJ (Brian Bradley), a droll, vegetarian, Raymond Chandler-quoting inner-city kid who becomes Scudder’s unlikely sidekick.
Idiosyncrasies aside, TJ feels like a plot device for most of the movie, but his contribution to the final scene indicts the self-mythologizing nature of most genre — action, crime, superhero, etc. — fiction. Just because Neeson growls into a phone again and this time says, “Motherfucker,” does not make him a model citizen. It’s too rough a world for another white hat versus black hat. A Walk Among the Tombstones knows that, but for the sake of getting you to pay to see it, it hopes you do not.
3 Stars Out of 5
This article was written for The Cornell Daily Sun and can be viewed at its original location here.