A Walk Among the Tombstones
Written & Directed by Scott Frank
There is a moment in the new thriller, A Walk Among the Tombstones, that you really feel things shifting into overdrive. The unstable elements in the film collide to raise expectations for the excitement to come. Unfortunately, that moment occurs about 90 minutes into the movie. The previous 90 minutes are consumed by Liam Neeson trying to solve a case we don’t care about while being distracted by a subplot we grow to despise. Predictable at every turn, this is a thrill-free zone that makes Non-Stop look like a masterpiece of suspense.
Liam Neeson is back for another turn in his seemingly-endless string of “Man with A Particular Skill Set” roles. Here, he plays Matt Scudder, an ex-cop shouldering a terrible secret… that is conveniently revealed in the film’s trailer. As is the untimely demise of another key character that you recognize immediately. It’s as if this movie was trying to dispel all suspense before you entered the theater!
After retiring in disgrace, Scudder now does “favors for people and they give him gifts.” That sounds nefarious and cool until he turns down the first sleazy case that comes his way in a fit of moral outrage. Then you wonder if Scudder is just looking for lost dogs or something. Now that’s a movie that might have been interesting.
The lazy plot requires Scudder to have a change of heart, however, so he reluctantly takes the case of a drug distributor (Dan Stevens) whose beloved wife was kidnapped and murdered (after he already paid the ransom). Dutifully following clues that tie his case to other unsolved murders, Scudder stumbles onto the path of two psychopaths (David Harbour and Adam David Thompson) who are given no motivations, backstories or emotional depth whatsoever. Along the way, Scudder crosses paths with a semi-homeless boy named T.J. (Brian ‘Astro’ Bradley) who likes to play detective and talk in wacky slang that Scudder can’t understand. The ridiculousness of this subplot cannot be overstated. It would completely derail the movie had it not already jumped the tracks, tumbled down an embankment and sunk into a swamp of impenetrable stuff.
Working from the source novel by Lawrence Block, it’s hard to imagine how writer-director, Scott Frank, could have constructed a poorer adaptation. Confused in its pacing, tone and thematic aspirations, Tombstones fails on both a visual and structural level. We plod through an uninteresting investigation about sleazeballs who got what they deserved, only to sprint through the most entertaining part of the story. It feels like the film’s first 90 minutes were a glorified setup for the final act. Of course, the final act plays out in such a predictable way that any excitement is quickly squashed.
Visually and thematically, Tombstones is all over the map. The story, which takes place in 1999, introduces a Y2K thread that leads absolutely nowhere. There are crooked cops that fade in and out of the action to no greater purpose. Murky allusions to pedophilia abound, including random characters reading Nabokov and the sudden introduction of a 14 year-old girl straight from central casting for Lolita. There is a graveyard that serves as little more than a fancy set piece, though its prominence in the film’s title would suggest otherwise. The World Trade Center even makes a cameo appearance. Clearly, Scott Frank was trying to evoke the menacing presence of ghosts, both personal and geographical, but his visual imagery never coalesces into a greater thematic statement. As a result, everything feels disjointed and clunky, failing to achieve any consistent mood.
Even if Frank were able to muster an overriding visual theme, it would be destroyed by one of the worst subplots in cinematic history. Okay, that’s an exaggeration; the worst subplot in the history of films not made by George Lucas. Scudder is in recovery for alcohol abuse and has a strong moral compass, so a kiddie sidekick like T.J. is an unnecessary adjunct to redemption. T.J.’s presence only disrupts the film’s ominous mood, and serves as deus ex machina under the most disturbing and inappropriate of circumstances.
Oddly, this feels like the work of multiple writers with disparate objectives. Tones clash, plot points fizzle into thin air and there isn’t a single character worth our time. Neeson, too, needs a breather from genre filmmaking. He’s beginning to look like an actor who graduated from the ‘Bruce Willis Academy of Boredom and Check Cashing.’ Overall, the cast is capable, but there’s just nothing they can do here. A Walk Among the Tombstones gets lost on its way to the cemetery.