Liam Neeson was not the face I envisioned when I cracked open my first Matthew Scudder detective novel back in high school. I even had a moments pause when viewing the trailer for A Walk Among the Tombstones as the marketing was clearly trying to capitalize on the success of Taken. So it is understandable that I was a little apprehensive walking into the film. Fears that the gritty atmosphere of Lawrence Block’s mystery series had been replaced by non-stop cartoonish action danced wildly in my head.
Fortunately these concerns dissipated the moment the streetwise orphan TJ (Brian ‘Astro’ Bradley) appeared on screen. It was clear by that point that director Scott Frank truly understood not only the tone of Block’s fictional world, but also the characters that exist within it.
Adapted from the tenth novel in the series, A Walk Among the Tombstones centres around unlicensed private investigator Matthew Scudder (Neeson). Eight years sober, but still haunted by the drunken event that led to him leaving the police force, Scudder makes a comfortable living doing investigative work and odd jobs off the books. One night Scudder is approached by Peter, a recovering junkie who he met at his weekly AA meetings, about a possible job opportunity with his brother Kenny Kristo (Dan Stevens).
A drug kingpin in New York, Kristo wants to hire Scudder to find the mysterious men (David Harbour & Adam David Thompson) who kidnapped and murdered his wife. Though reluctant to take the case at first, Scudder discovers that Kristo is not the first victim to encounter this particular brand of extortion. Furthermore, the kidnappers seem to be targeting only women who have ties to organized crime in the city. With the duos next target in their sights, Scudder must race to piece the clues together before another mutilated body surfaces.
A Walk Among the Tombstones harkens back to the old school thrillers where private eyes had to pound the pavement to gather information. Despite taking place in 1999 – the paranoia surrounding Y2K is a prevalent undercurrent in the film – Scudder is a man more akin to sleuths like Philip Marlowe and Sam Spade. He is a relic of an era that rebukes technology preferring a simple note pad and pen.
This trait makes his surrogate father-son bond with TJ work so well in the film. TJ is tech savvy, but also embodies the impatient nature of his generation. He wants to be a detective like Scudder, but does not realize that it takes a certain amount of experienced leg work not taught in books. Neeson does a wonderful job of displaying the burden of several years of experience in his subtle facial gestures. There is a moment in the film where it is clear in Scudder’s weary eyes that there are only two possible outcomes for a particular situation…and neither will end pleasantly.
Scott Frank accentuates Neeson’s performance by presenting a dreary version of New York. It is a place so bleak that even the 12-Step program for alcoholics transforms into a grim call to violence. He paints a city where terror is not just found in abandoned buildings, but also in the posh neighbourhoods that the killers prowl like lions closing in on their prey. One of the most chilling images in the film comes when a young girl, in a Red Riding Hood cloak, unsuspectingly crosses the path of the twp predators. Frank slows the sequence down, as a cheerful tune plays in the soundtrack, to emphasize just how close to home such evil can be. As one of the killers’ points out, when passing a Y2K sign, “people are afraid of all the wrong things”.
By playing up this notion of misguided fear, A Walk Among the Tombstones exceeds expectations. Frank’s film is the gritty old school detective mystery that has been sorely missed on the big screen in recent year. Though Liam Neeson may not have been my initial choice going in, I can no longer think of anyone better suited for the role. Neeson is truly the cinematic version of Matthew Scudder that fans of the novels have been waiting for. Hopefully this will not be the last time he puts on the Scudder trench coat and roams the streets looking for clues.