Monday, September 22, 2014

Taking Out Scum: "Walk Among the Tombstones" a grisly, watchably unsettling crime thriller

A Walk Among the Tombstones (2014)
114 min., rated R.

"Badass Liam Neeson Bloodlust Actioner" is now its own genre, as all of them are starting to blend together, but his latest isn't actually of a piece with the "Taken" movies or "Non-Stop" at all. Closer in tone and the favoring of methodical storytelling to "The Silence of the Lambs," "A Walk Among the Tombstones" is an anomaly in the best way — it's dark, disturbing and often grimly unpleasant, as it should be. Directed by Scott Frank, the screenwriter who penned "Get Shorty," "Out of Sight" and "Minority Report" and made his auspicious directorial debut with the 2007 crackerjack thriller "The Lookout," the film is based on the book by Lawrence Block. Fans of crime fiction will immediately know that character P.I. Matthew Scudder (here played by Mr. Neeson) has been at the center of his own eighteen-novel series and was last essayed onscreen by Jeff Bridges in 1986's "8 Million Ways to Die." If audiences can stick out the grisly material, "A Walk Among the Tombstones" could be the start of something more riveting and adult than Neeson's increasingly silly "Taken" series.

Retired as a police detective and recovering from the drink as an eight-year AA member, Matthew Scudder (Liam Neeson) is now an unlicensed New York private eye doing favors for people. When one of his AA mates, junkie Peter (Boyd Holbrook), requests his help, Scudder meets Peter's brother Kenny (Dan Stevens), a well-off drug trafficker. His wife has been kidnapped and brutally killed by two men in a white van, even though he actually paid her $400,000 ransom. Though hesitant to be paid off by a drug dealer, Scudder takes on the job since Kenny can't go to the cops and he begins his investigation throughout the boroughs, realizing that a series of female kidnappings, all connected to drug dealers, could lead him to the serial killers. Meanwhile, Scudder makes friends with T.J. (Brian "Astro" Bradley), a street kid who likes to draw and wouldn't mind solving crimes with the ex-cop. Can Scudder find the killers with a specific M.O. before they strike again?

As hard-R, hard-hitting pulp with noir leanings, "A Walk Among the Tombstones" opens in 1991 with a socko shooting in a bar, where Scudder's reading of the newspaper with coffee and two liquor shots gets interrupted. Then the credits sequence gets under the viewer's skin with a sensuous-turned-prurient sequence of a blonde woman who's revealed to be a victim with her mouth taped. It's not exactly the most tasteful stylization, but it is effectively creepy without growing gratuitous or distractingly misogynistc; how does one show depravity without at least hinting the depravity anyway? From there, the film, now set in 1999, has an air of foreboding, not only from the way writer-director Scott Frank has cinematographer Mihai Malaimare Jr.  ("The Master") shoot New York City as a dank, atmospheric place of cloudiness and rain but how details of the impending Y2K are sprinkled throughout. Oh, and remember payphones? 

Liam Neeson, as we already know, is a reliable, rock-solid actor, but he shouldn't be taken for granted. Capable of playing a pensive, flawed, albeit noble, detective/hitman/man-with-a-very-particular-set-of-skills in his sleep, he can be called in to headline anything that requires threatening bad guys on the phone and it still doesn't feel like he's phoning it in. The character of Matt Scudder has been under hard times, attending AA meetings but still going strong without hanging on the precipice of his sobriety. This should be a clichéd archetype by now, but Neeson gives Scudder his usual grizzled credibility and shadings of regret and decency. Ancillary support is provided by Boyd Holbrook and Dan Stevens, who are believable as brothers on different ends of drug dealing, and David Harbour and Adam David Thompson deserve credit for being the ickiest serial killers in recent memory. Making a chilling mark is Ólafur Darri Ólafsson as an odd person of interest who works as a cemetery groundskeeper and tends to his pigeons on the roof of an apartment building. Finally, Brian "Astro" Bradley is a natural as the street-wise T.J., who luckily leavens the somber tone with some humor. 

For a long time, the male psychos are kept hidden in shadows while driving around in their creepy white van, but this isn't really a whodunit. Around the midpoint, the film unveils its two sickos (David Harbour, Adam David Thompson) as they start off their banal morning making breakfast and reading the newspaper, one of them in their underwear. With both of their faces in plain view, they seek out a new young woman to prey on in the form of a 14-year-old Russian girl walking her dog, alarmingly cued to Donovan's "Atlantis," and the sight of her red raincoat won't be lost on those who remember 1973's "Don't Look Now." Interestingly, it's also implied that the two psychopaths are lovers, but that avenue is never explored. Without sounding more heavy-handed than it really is (until the use of freeze frames and AA voice-over come in during the third-act stand-off appropriately set in a cemetery), the film is about a shattered man trying to find salvation with his demons, along with its breadcrumb-leaving mystery. For a scummy New York-set crime potboiler that comes the closest it can to being a horror film, "A Walk Among the Tombstones" is stylishly shot and solidly told in a slow-burn procedural fashion. Downbeat, sure, and guilty of some overlength, but it's also watchably unsettling.


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