A man sits in the passenger seat of a car. He argues with the man in the driver’s seat, then gets out and walks into a bar. He goes in and sits down in a booth facing away from the door. When he sits down we see his badge and realize he’s a cop. He’s clearly a regular, since he doesn’t say a word to the bartender and he doesn’t need to: the bartender brings him a cup of coffee and two shots of whiskey.
Three men enter the bar. They are unwelcome, and the bartender tells them to get lost. They respond by blowing him away with a shotgun. The cop sitting in the booth pulls his gun and shoots at the men. They return fire and flee out the front door of the bar. The cop pursues them, and they exchange gunfire in the street. The men try to drive away, the cop shoots the driver and his blood sprays over the windshield.
The remaining two try to escape on foot, the cop kills one of them and shoots the third in the leg. The movie’s opening credits begin: we see a woman, filmed in close-up. We get the sense that we could be seeing something intimate. And we are, but not in the way you might expect. We see the woman’s eyes, which are wide and clearly terrified. A tear runs down her cheek. Her mouth is duct taped.
Such is the beginning of A Walk Among the Tombstones, one of Liam Neeson’s latest films. Neeson plays Matt Scudder, a New York City cop who, eight years after the shootout shown in the movie’s opening sequence, has retired from the police department and now works as an unlicensed private detective. He’s been sober ever since that day in the bar, and regularly attends AA meetings.
He’s sitting in a diner when a man from one of his AA groups approaches him. The man identifies himself as Peter Kristo, and tells Scudder that his brother Kenny would like a word with him. Scudder reluctantly accepts. He goes with Peter to Kenny’s house, and deduces from the opulence of Kenny’s house that he’s a drug trafficker. Kenny tells Scudder that his wife has been kidnapped. Scudder tells him to call the police, Kenny replies that he already paid the kidnappers four hundred thousand dollars, but they killed his wife anyway.
Scudder doesn’t want to get involved. But when he gets back to his apartment, Kenny is there. He tells Scudder what the kidnappers did to his wife, which is unspeakable. Despite his reservations, Scudder agrees to find the men.
Needless to say (but I’m going to say it anyway), A Walk Among the Tombstones is one of Liam Neeson’s darkest films. It pulls no punches. The movie is based on a novel by Lawrence Block, and is one of a series of novels featuring Matt Scudder. I haven’t read it, so I don’t know how closely the movie does or does not follow the book.
It’s a movie that tells a fairly simple story: evil men are kidnapping the wives of drug traffickers and doing unspeakable things to them. We see glimpses of the men, but the first couple of times we see them their faces are partially offscreen, or hidden in shadow. It isn’t until the movie is almost halfway over that we see them in the light, and they are just a couple of guys. Just a couple of normal guys eating breakfast and reading the newspaper. Two guys named Ray and Albert. If you passed them on the street, you wouldn’t think twice about them. You’d never guess what evil was lurking under the surface.
And that’s what compelling to me about this kind of story: it’s completely plausible. this is the kind of thing that could be happening right under your very nose, and chances are you would never realize it.
Some of Liam Neeson’s recent action films are a bit implausible, I’ll admit. They’re fun, but they can be pretty far-fetched. As much as I enjoyed Non-Stop, I’ll freely admit that the plot is a bit of a stretch.
A Walk Among the Tombstones is the opposite. It’s not fun and it is very plausible. There are scenes in this film that are deeply disturbing and very hard to watch. But the film’s director, Scott Frank, wisely doesn’t the let the film go too far. He pulls back just short of showing the worst details of what Ray and Albert do to their victims, but he shows enough to get the point across, and what we do see is chilling.
It’s a tricky balancing act, but Frank pulls it off pretty well. This is a film that could easily have gone too far and turned into exploitation, and it does toe the line a couple times, but fortunately Frank is smart enough to realize that he doesn’t need to get too graphic, and what is left to the imagination is always worse than anything he could actually show. Still, there’s more than enough here to earn the movie its R-rating. The violence is brutal and disturbing, but fortunately for the viewer it stops just short of being gratuitous.
The movie wears its influences on its sleeve (Sam Spade and Philip Marlowe are name-dropped several times), but it manages to avoid most of the clichés associated with the hard-boiled private detective genre. The whole recovering-alcoholic trope is a bit played out, but it didn’t bother me, since it’s important to Scudder’s character and there’s a compelling reason why he stopped drinking, which we don’t find out until later in the film (Spoiler alert: during the opening shootout, one of Scudder’s shots took a bad bounce and killed a young girl who was out with her mother).
The acting in the film is solid across the board: Liam Neeson is great as always, giving a compelling performance as a guy who knows he’s done bad things in his life, and is doing his best to live with himself. Kenny Kristo is played by Dan Stevens, our old friend from The Guest. While in that film he was lean and muscular, in this one he appears downright gaunt (and with good reason, the ever-useful trivia section for the movie on IMDb tells me Stevens lost 30 pounds for the role).
And once again his American accent is convincing enough that you’d never know he’s actually a Brit (Why is it that British actors can do great American accents while most American actors can’t do a convincing British accent to save their lives? There are probably lots of people who don’t realize that Christian Bale, for example, is from Wales).
A Walk Among the Tombstones is not an easy watch, and it’s certainly not very uplifting. But it’ll stay with you, and maybe even make you think about the nature of evil in the world. I don’t know why bad things happen to good people, but I’m glad this movie was made. It allows for the possibility of redemption, maybe not for Ray and Albert but certainly for Scudder. It’s a well-made and well-acted modern noir that, while not without its flaws, is still very compelling in painting a picture of the darkness that exists just below the surface.