Through its tarnished hero’s melancholic investigation process, “A Walk Among the Tombstones” looks into the dark, twisted face of human evil, and there are several chilling moments which will make you cringe or gasp for the horror implied during these moments. I was disturbed by its dark, harsh scenes, and I felt lots of uneasiness with what might happen in the film, but I was also gripped by its good storytelling which steadily accumulates tension in its somber, meditative tone. This is a thriller film where story and characterization come first with style and atmosphere to engage and unnerve us, and it eventually works as a gray personal drama of desolation and redemption instead of being a run-of-mill thriller movie with lots of bangs and crashes.
Liam Neeson, who gives his best performance since “The Grey”(2011) here in this film, plays Matthew Scudder, an ex-cop who is currently working as an unlicensed private detective. After an incident shown in the prologue scene, he left the police even though he was not blamed for what happened during that incident, and now he becomes a lot different from who he was 8 years ago. While still haunted by his personal demon, he looks more reserved and thoughtful in his demeanors, and he also stopped drinking. We see him attending his another AA meeting, and he humbly shows his sobriety chip to his fellow AA members who need help and support as much as he once did.
After that meeting, somebody approaches to him for help, but it is not for sobriety. A struggling young addict named Peter Kristo(Dan Stevens) wants Scudder to meet his brother Kenny(Dan Stevens), and Kenny asks Scudder to find who was responsible for kidnapping his dear wife. He did pay the ransom as demanded after some negotiation, but his wife was brutally murdered in the end, and he was devastated when he found what happened to her. Because he is involved in drug business, Kenny cannot possibly request the police to investigate this case, so he wants help from Scudder, who can be hired to do an unofficial investigation for him.
Scudder does not accept the case at first, but he changes his mind after learning a little more about how cruelly Kenny’s wife was tortured before getting killed. As he patiently gathers clues during his investigation, it gradually becomes clear to him that there is a duo of sadistic kidnappers preying on family members of drug business people – and Kenny’s wife was not their first victim.
We meet these two horrible guys in advance. We watch how meticulous they are in their work, and we observe how ordinary they look on the surface, and then we are horrified to see that they are ready to strike again. Maintaining their plain façade as usual, they silently go around together for spotting any suitable hostage around their potential target, and we get an insidious sequence at one point in which they search for the prey around their target’s house while not noticed by others.
The director Scott Frank, who wrote the adapted screenplay for “Out of Sight”(1998) and made a directorial debut with underrated “The Lookout”(2007), sets the tone right from the opening scene, and he never lets it slip away from the screen throughout his film. The sense of doom and dread is always around Scudder as he goes around his bleak world which does not give much comfort for him and others, and the cinematographer Mihai Malaimare Jr., who previously did a wonderful job in “The Master”(2012), gives us atmospheric moments which slowly draw our attention through careful scene composition and lighting. Even without the amusing mentions of Y2K(the story is set in New York during late 1999), the movie is already packed with darkness as a neo-noir film, and that feeling is further amplified especially when Scudder must save an innocent young girl from those dangerous kidnappers.
The movie is based on the novel with the same name by Lawrence Block, which is one of his 17 Matthew Scudder novels. I only read “A Dance at the Slaughterhouse”, which incidentally preceded “A Walk Among the Tombstones”, around 20 years ago, but I can say that the adapted screenplay by Scott Frank maintains our interest well with its good dialogue and solid characterization. The movie certainly disturbs us with its restrained but effective depiction of savage evil, but it also interests us as a grim but compelling journey into the darkness of human heart, and that aspect particularly reminds me of the recent TV series “True Detective”, which also vividly and hauntingly illuminates the worst sides of humanity through its disturbing crime tale.
Liam Neeson is perfectly case as a desolate tough hero with quiet intensity. There are a few moments which may take you back to “Taken”(2008) and his other recent action thriller films, but he gives a more nuanced performance which slowly reveals his complex character’s steely side along with deep remorse and guilt remaining inside him. Neeson is always good at internalizing heroes haunted by their checkered past, and his performance reminds us again that this wonderful actor is too good to be wasted in passable films like “Non-Stop”(2014).
The supporting actors surrounding Neeson give different shades to the story through their good performances. While Dan Stevens and Boyd Holbrook give human aspects to their characters, David Harbour and Eric Nelsen are utterly vile and frightening as the villains of the movie, and young actor Brian “Astro” Bradley holds his place as a bright homeless kid who becomes close to Scudder after their chance encounter.
While there are notable missteps in the film(its climax intercut with each step of the 12-step program feels more like an overkill despite its dramatic intent), “A Walk Among the Tombstones” is effective as a crime thriller, and I was stimulated by the skills and techniques put into the film. Its trailer makes it look like another action flick featuring Liam Neeson, but this is a completely different kind of film, and it will satisfy you if you are ready for a well-made film which is dark, gritty, and haunting enough to linger on your mind even after its end credits.