‘A Walk Among the Tombstones’ Review: Farewell, My Ugly
There’s a distinct impression one gets while sifting through the shelves of a secondhand bookstore, when you pick up a pulp detective novel filled with lurid violence and corrupt sensuality, and you realize that the pages filled with the most detailed descriptions of human depravity are “mysteriously” stuck together.
A Walk Among the Tombstones may be based on a series of popular novels by writer Lawrence Block, but it plays like an adaptation of a book you probably shouldn’t be caught owning when the police raid your house. I mean that as a compliment, sort of. Scott Frank, who directed the film and also adapted the screenplay, has turned an otherwise merely competent airport novel of a movie into a scuzzy creeper, only a few steps removed from a proper horror movie. I wish he had taken those steps. The preponderance of private detective clichés gets in the way of an otherwise interesting foray into the odious garbage disposals of the soul.
Liam Neeson plays Matthew Scudder, a former police detective turned unlicensed private eye. Scudder is enlisted by a drug trafficker named Kenny, played by Dan Stevens (The Guest), to track down the men who kidnapped and killed Kenny’s wife. Along the way Scudder picks up a precocious homeless boy played by Brian ‘Astro’ Bradley (Earth to Echo), because he’s also a recovering alcoholic with a mysterious past and he wouldn’t want to miss out on any of the other hackneyed potboiler tropes while he was at it.
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The plot of A Walk Among the Tombstones proceeds as we all know it must, with Scudder tracking down persons of interest, confronting them when they lie and eventually piecing together the identities of the criminals preying on other, apparently much nicer criminals. (The victims are all, to a one, doting family men who just happen to be proprietors of human misery.)
But where A Walk Among the Tombstones excels, if it ever does, is when the killers take center stage. Scott Frank finds a freakish banality to their lives, making biscuits in the kitchen half naked before they stalk their prey in windowless vans. Frank dares to take us into their gross fantasies. The triumphant rock that plays when they first spy their underage target would be just as appropriate for a slow-motion shot of popular cheerleaders trotting down the halls in a cheesy teen comedy. This is the height of sexuality, and she can’t be more than twelve years old. Frank trusts you to choke back your own bile. He’s too intrigued by the abyss of his villains’ inner lives.
Some movies come with special 3D glasses, some come with a branded bucket of popcorn. A Walk Among the Tombstones should come with a bottle of disinfectant. Liam Neeson is a fine dramatic lead as always, and the rest of the supporting cast is game, but Scott Frank’s film only seems to come alive when it’s rolling around in its own filth. There’s a certain nobility in that, a boldness to its criminal obsessions that’s both evocative and shocking, but it only does so much to hold aloft an otherwise formulaic pulp crime thriller.
You’ll recognize too many of the plot points as they arrive, sometimes even before, and that’s simply frustrating because there’s a more disturbing point of view being dipped into that probably should have been the focus of the movie instead. It would have been hard to watch, but unlike the film A Walk Among the Tombstones turned into, it would have at least been worth the effort.