Sunday, July 12, 2015

Brutal, Sparse, Novelistic: Liam Neeson's Latest Violent Opus

Movie Review: A Walk Among the Tombstones

Director: Scott Frank

Reviewed: 11 July 2015

jamesintexas rating--***

Liam Neeson's latest film A Walk Among the Tombstones feels more like Jack Reacher than Taken, and perhaps it comes from his protagonist's wounded, haunted quality and patient direction that allows Neeson to brood, to wander, to get beat up, and, in short, to be vulnerable. Matt Scudder is an alcoholic ex-cop, current private detective who finds himself in the home of the brother of a friend from an AA Meeting. Scudder is asked to help find the man's kidnapped wife, and it is complicated because of the man's status as a drug trafficker. It appears that the criminals have been targeting fellow criminals, people without strict legal recourse, and paying the ransom is not assurance of release of the family member. Scudder is not superhuman; he is world-weary, walks everywhere, does not carry a gun, and is good at thinking through crimes, so director Scott Frank takes us through his process: interviewing witnesses, going to the scene of the crime, noticing neighbors and angles, and trying to uncover more. And he does, leading to layer upon layer of deception as the kidnappers prowl the neighborhood, picking up their next victim, accelerated Scudder's pace as he tries to stop them.

The film looks cold and crisp and grey, and its locales reflect the harshness of the weather and time of year. Frank is telling a brutal and violent story here, one with nihilistic antagonists who are without morals and without much backstory at all, making them quite frightening. Revelation after revelation unfolds, and the film's setting in 1999 makes it fodder for all the Y2K jokes but also sets the stage for Scudder's growing friendship with homeless teen TJ (Astro) whom he meets at the library computer station. That friendship provides tension and fear for TJ's life, and the film gives them both enough room to breathe and build a believable camaraderie. Scudder mostly makes his investigation  face-to-face or studying old microfiche headlines, techniques that seem quaint when viewed in 2015. The violence is sickening and gruesomely effective in the snippets that Frank shares. Neeson does strong work here because he carries the world in his face and authority: my favorite scene is him on the telephone, badgering the kidnappers and showing a grim authority about their business while the family members look on with wonder and horror. But his Scudder is never glib or cheeky; he is weighed down by the things he has done and seen.

There are problems in the film's third act, particularly in a nonsensical exchange that seems to put the kidnappers at an extreme disadvantage, as well as a confrontation at a house that goes on way too long. The film has nothing particularly deep to say about revenge or the demons inside Scudder or other characters. It has a grim quality, a workmanlike pace, and a small sense of hope through the character of TJ. It offers no real resolution or catharsis with the maniacal serial killers; worse, their genesis seems the inevitable byproduct of a corrupt system where files can fall into the wrong hands. Scudder's final decision seems less heroic and more acceptance of the limits of tolerance, and the entire film feels like watching chapters in a book unfold. There is a construction and a patience in storytelling that feels very novelistic. I do not know if A Walk Among the Tombstones made enough at the box office to justify a sequel or further adventures, but Liam Neeson as Matt Scudder captured my attention, and I would continue to follow the character's adventures if given the opportunity.

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