Sunday, September 21, 2014

Review: A Walk Among the Tombstones

Image courtesy of Universal Pictures.
"People are afraid of the wrong things," claims one of the serial killers in Scott Frank's "A Walk Among the Tombstones," as he scans a story in the newspaper about Y2K fears. Indeed, the psychotic duo that act as the villains in this grim 1999-set thriller are significantly scarier than the Internet crash that never came. But a shot near the film's end showing a gloomy Manhattan skyline with World Trade Center towers intact should be an indicator that this film has a little bit more on its mind than your typical detective story.

Liam Neeson gives one of his finest performances in recent memory as Matt Scudder, the disgraced cop from Lawrence Block's novels who has taken on a gig as a private eye and occasionally "does favors for people and accepts gifts in return." In other words, he's not licensed. Rather than taking another stab at playing up his recent tongue-in-cheek turn as an unlikely action hero in films such as "Non Stop" and "Taken," Neeson digs deeper into his role as Scudder.

The picture opens in 1991 as Scudder engages in a shoot out with some criminals that takes a tragic turn. Nine years later, he slinks about the streets of overcast Manhattan, taking on detective work. During an AA meeting, he is asked to take on a case involving a kidnapped woman. As it turns out, the client is a drug trafficker whose wife was nabbed by two men demanding money. After the trafficker paid them off, they sent the woman back to him piece by piece. In his course of researching the case, Scudder finds that the victim may not have been the first.

During an evening of investigating at a library, Scudder ends up befriending a homeless black teenager named TJ (Brian 'Astro' Bradley). And in one of the film's biggest surprises, this friendship does not end up being the cliched plot line that you might fear it'll become. Rather, TJ becomes obsessed with learning Scudder's trade and the detective sort of obliges him and, at the same time, pays TJ for odds and ends.

As a thriller, "Tombstones" treads some familiar ground in terms of how its story unfolds. Scudder tracks the killers, interviews a creepy witness who may or may not have some involvement in the case and, of course, another victim is nabbed, leaving Scudder a small window of time to recover her before she suffers a grisly death.

And yet, the material works because the film has more going on thematically than most of its kind, especially when presented as a pre-Y2K and 9/11 thriller, and features some solid writing, strong performances and a creepy mood. The film's big showdown provides a final bonus in that it not only brings a little catharsis, but in doing so further develops its lead character.

One review of "Tombstones" noted that Hollywood doesn't make this type of film anymore - that is, an old fashioned, hard boiled noir thriller. And that's not entirely true as the last year has seen the release of Denis Villeneuve's woefully underrated "Prisoners" and the debut of the phenomenal HBO show "True Detective." But it's true that Frank's film, which follows his 2007 debut "The Lookout," is among the few modern thrillers that emphasize mood and characterization over action and manage to slip in some thoughtful ideas on how we live now.

Needless to say, I'd highly recommend it. It's one of the better examples of its genre in recent memory.

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