A Walk Among the Tombstones

Posted by Michael Parsons on September 22, 2014 in / No Comments


“A Walk Among the Tombstones” isn’t the big, super-graphic, non-stop shoot-’em-up that Liam Neeson fans had been hoping for (but were mostly deprived of) in the “Taken” movies. It’s something surprisingly better: a moody, sometimes disturbing noir thriller that hews closer to David Fincher than it does to Luc Besson.

Though the body count isn’t as high as most films in the star’s recent wave of action flicks (I could probably count the number of bullets that are discharged in this film on two hands), the stakes are far more tangible, and the retribution much more gruesome.

122959_galOn paper, Neeson’s character, Detective Matt Scudder (who was made famous in a series of novels by Lawrence Block), looks like an extension of his alcoholic air marshal in this year’s “Non Stop”. After a fatal shoot-out in the streets of Brooklyn, the brooding cop, sporting Neeson’s Ra’s al Ghul goatee from “Batman Begins”, joins AA and quits the police force (there’s even an ex-wife mentioned for good measure).

On screen, though, Neeson mostly transcends the clichés associated with the “tortured ex-cop”. After eight years of sobriety, Scudder, now an unlicensed, clean-shaven private eye, is called on by drug trafficker Kenny Kristo (Dan Stevens) to find the men who abducted his wife and cut her into pieces, despite having been paid a ransom. At first reluctant, Scudder investigates and finds himself on the trail of two sadistic psychopaths (David Harbour and Adam David Thompson) who target the wives and girlfriends of high-level narcotics dealers.

Scudder’s first big break in the case comes from the groundskeeper of a cemetery (Ólafur Darri Ólafsson), where one of the bodies had been found dismembered and floating in a pond. After Scudder discovers that he’s involved, the weak-willed man coughs up a vague location, the name “Ray”, and then takes a ten-story swan dive into the roof of a car (“What gave me away?”, the guy asks before jumping, to which Neeson replies: “Everything. You’re a weirdo.”)

122960_gal“Tombstones” takes place in 1999, and screenwriter/director Scott Frank’s (2007’s “The Lookout”) style harks back to atmospheric psychological thrillers of that era like “Seven”, where the creaky, shadowy settings were enough to give you the heebee-jeebees. Cinematographer Mihai Malaimare Jr. looms over his subjects like an apparition, as Scudder’s investigation takes him to some haunting Brooklyn locales (there’s something inherently chilling about a character perusing newspaper articles on a Microfiche in an old, dark library during a thunderstorm), and vertigo-inducing camera angles and tracking shots occasionally recall the more macabre works of early Brian De Palma.

The script only loses its grim focus every now and again: One side story showcases a great young talent named Brian ‘Astro’ Bradley (“Earth to Echo”), who plays Scudder’s unlikely teenage sidekick TJ. He’s present in a lot of situations that would have been far more convincing without a kid’s involvement — this isn’t a Roland Emmerich movie, after all — but he’s a highlight when assisting Scudder in his investigation, namely with technology that seems to be beyond the ex-cop’s stubbornly old-school scope of knowledge. Bradley’s performance is skillfully nuanced, and it almost makes you forgive the old “I’m coming with you!” schtick that so many writers feel compelled to ruin their movies with.

But if you’re going to buy a ticket, buy it for David Harbour, who plays one of the creepiest serial killers since Buffalo Bill. “A Walk Among the Tombstones” is a dark, realistic thriller that gets to the payoff rather circuitously; its aim, I suppose, is to depict how sloppy and unpredictable such a situation could really play out. This might come at the expense of some viewers, who are hoping for more of Neeson’s trademark blend of jiu-jitsu and lightning quick trigger speed. But don’t worry, “Taken 3” is right around the corner.

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Michael Parsons

Father. Realtor®. Movie nut. After pestering my parents for their commentary on “Star Wars” when I was four years old, my mind went into a creative frenzy. I’d imagined something entirely different than the actual film, which I didn’t end up seeing until its 1979 re-release at the Uptown Theater in Washington, DC. This was my formal introduction to the cinema.

During that long wait, which felt like an eternity to a child, my mind was being molded by more corrosive stuff like “Trilogy of Terror” and “Rosemary’s Baby”, most of which I’d conned various babysitters into letting me watch on television ( I convinced one poor lady that “Jaws” was actually “Moby Dick”).

The folks were pretty strict in that regard, so the less appropriate it was for a kid to watch, the more I was fascinated by it. Horror staples like “Halloween” and “Friday the 13th”, as well as lesser-known low-budget fare like “Madman”, “Sleepaway Camp” and “Pieces” all ended up sneaking their way into the VHS on a regular basis.

Since then, I’ve developed an obsession with the entire film industry. Even though I watch and review a wide breadth of films these days, my appreciation for the campy, poorly lit micro-budgeters still lends itself to my evolving perspective on movies just as much as the summer blockbusters and Oscar contenders. As I recall my trips to the movie theater, I realize that this stuff is about much more than just a fleeting piece of entertainment.

A couple years ago, I was finally given the opportunity to lend my opinion on films to a publication, The Rogers Revue, with a subsequent run at Reel Film News. It's been both a privilege and a gateway to what we’re doing now. Most of my experience has come from interviewing independent filmmakers, who consistently promote innovation. The filmmaking process is grueling and relatively unforgiving.

Fellow film enthusiast Eddie Pasa and I have created DC Filmdom as a medium for film reviews, discussion, and (inevitably) some debate. And so, the creative frenzy continues.

(Michael is a member of the Washington, DC Area Film Critics Association).

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