Looking at the trailer for A Walk Among the Tombstones, one would be forgiven for assuming it is a Liam Neeson movie. That is, about man with a particular set of skills. Terrorists (or just murderers, here) being killed. Action mayhem, a hero who will stop at nothing.
But this movie, an adaptation of Lawrence Block’s novel, the tenth in his series featuring recovering alcoholic and recovering police detective Matt Scudder, is by no means an action movie. It involves no revenge (at least not for the main character). It involves no obsession. Central to Scudder’s character in his work as an unlicensed private investigator isn’t he doesn’t much want to be there. Or anywhere at all.
Neeson here has the difficult task of playing a character trying hard to be dis-engaged. He quit being a cop because of a shooting incident in his past (one that unfolds through the movie as he tells it again and again, adding more details) and now is weary, very weary of living. He mentions having a family only once, and never makes so much as an attempt to see them.
Part of the weariness is having to deal all the time with bad guys (and not being so sure he isn’t one of them.) And in A Walk Among the Tombstones there is nothing but bad guys – a junkie from one of Matt’s AA meetings wants him to meet his brother, whom Matt surmises almost immediately is a drug dealer. His wife was kidnapped, a ransom was set. He paid it, and she was returned to him, in the backseat of an abandoned car, in many pieces.
He wants Matt Scudder to find the men, and bring them to him.
The story unfolds in a traditional, one might even say old-fashioned way: Matt Scudder asks people questions. He compares their information, he goes to the library. Set in 1999, Tombstones is deliberately suffused with the threat of Y2K – the oncoming technological apocalypse where the entire new world is going to collapse around its own ears. For Scudder, that collapse has already occurred. He’s already a man outside his own job, outside his own usefulness, and, at least initially, shown to be not all that good at the job he’s doing.
Eventually, Scudder stumbles upon a young black sidekick, TJ, who also has no direction, and so decides to take up Matt’s. TJ comes from the books (though he’s not as precocious, as quirky, or as much of a damned movie kid as this TJ) but in the novels he fulfills less of a symbolic function for Scudder. Here, homeless, essentially an orphan with sickle cell anemia and an affection for ’30s detective fiction, he’s perhaps too obviously an embodiment of Scudder’s dwindled hopes for the future – sick, left out in the rain, none too wise.
The other major players in the story are the kidnappers. Their identities and modus operendi are not left a mystery at all, none of which makes them any easier for Matt Scudder to find, since he essentially has to wait for them to kidnap again. It’s when this happens in the third act that the novel’s most striking set-pieces are recreated, and was for me the most gripping part of the movie.
I also liked the basic level of the detective work. The abundance of procedurals available on TV mean that any interested audience can see a couple dozen crimes solved a week. Those TV crimes are solved with fibers and blood samples and nerds sifting through things on computers. Tombstones keeps everything lo-tech (and indeed even microfiche is a bit too technically complicated for our detective) and grounds the story entirely in character.
Happily, though the crimes of the bad guys are gruesome, even sadistic, the film does not linger or focus on the sadism. Even as we learn more about the kidnapper/murderers, the remain shadowy and aloof, and they’re never less than creepy.
All of the detective work and action is punctuated with AA meetings. Scudders speaks, he sits and listens. When there’s a couple of hours between before a meeting with the kidnappers, the story’s climax, he takes the time for one (perhaps last) AA meeting. His alcoholism and recovery are as important to his character as any detective or gun skills. This attention to character is the hallmark of a kind of movie rarely made anymore, the adult thriller. (One of my favorite movies of 2013, Prisoners, was another one of these now rare birds, and similarly explored a man’s struggle with his conscience in the context of a genre plot.) It takes the concerns and troubles of an older character seriously, particularly the age-old worry that the world has maybe completely gone to hell.
How compelling this is for audiences expecting action, or interesting forensics, is questionable. At just under two hours the deliberately paced film does not fly by. The violence is deliberately non-cathartic, and its somber tone might be a put-off. Having read the book and having followed Matt Scudder for a long time, I found the A Walk Among the Tombstones true to the core of why he’s an interesting detective: he remains immersed in the world of crime not to punish the bad guys, but to punish himself.
The A Walk Among the Tombstones Blu-ray contains a pair of extras: a 12-minute featurette about the making of the movie and a short one with Lawrence Block and writer director Scott Frank discussing Matt Scudder’s character. Both are okay, neither are worth the purchase of this technically fine Blu-ray on their own.
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