A Walk Among the Tombstones plays like a pulp crime thriller that doesn’t know it’s pulp. The lurid content is all there: the troubled private detective, the seedy underworld, the grizzly crime and its inhuman-to-the-point-of-demonic perpetrators. And then there’s New York City and its boroughs, which in this case plays like the rundown little brother to the nameless urban wasteland in Seven.
Yet the film’s tone and construction are surprisingly restrained. Most of that grounding is thanks to Liam Neeson, who has built himself quite a niche elevating otherwise B-material with the sheer force of his acting prowess. Here he plays Matt Scudder, whom we meet in 1991 as an alcoholic and bedraggled New York City detective.
Scudder fights with his partner, then strolls into local bar for a morning coffee accompanied by two shots of whiskey. Two men rob the place, and a shootout in the streets ensues. The gun fight goes horribly awry, but it’s only over the course of the film that we find out how. In late 1999, Scudder is still haunted by what happened. As Neeson plays him, he’s too grim and practical and sardonic to lose himself in self-loathing. But you can see the regret sitting in his stomach like a dead weight.
Eight years sober, a regular attendee at Alcoholics Anonymous, and long retired from the police force, Scudder now operates as an unlicensed private eye. That makes him very attractive to people who need problems solved but can’t call the cops. So one day he’s approached by Pete Kristo (Boyd Holbrook). Pete’s brother Kenny Kristo (Dan Stevens) is a very successful drug trafficker, whose wife has just been kidnapped and brutally murdered by a pair of unknown assailants.
After Neeson, Stevens is the other bit of glue that holds A Walk Among the Tombstones together. He plays Kristo as a hard man rather than a vicious one; he knows his wife was picked precisely because of his profession. He’s turned his self-reproach and grief and horror so far inward they’ve eaten him to a pinched shell of pure will and purpose. Between that physicality and the dark hair and mustache, Stevens is almost unrecognizable from his previous role as Matthew Crawley in Downton Abbey.
The details of the wife’s kidnapping are gruesome, not just for what the killers do to her, and how they play psychological games with Kristo after the fact. We’re actually introduced to Ray (David Harbour) and Albert (Adam David Thompson) early, in slo-mo cutaways to their preparations for their next crime, as Scudder digs into the case. The film is not a supernatural story, but these moments make it feel like maybe it should be. Every so often, director Scott Frank comes close to achieving the same overwhelming sense of dread as HBO’s True Detective. Ray and Albert hang over the proceedings like a plague.
Once he takes the case, Scudder proceeds through the classic detective noir steps, encountering and interrogating various characters in the blasted cityscape. There’s James Loogan (Ólafur Darri Ólafsson), the unnerving groundskeeper at a local cemetery; David Anzuelo as a local gang leader moonlighting as a storeowner; and T.J. (Astro), a young man Scudder befriends at the library who unilaterally decides he’s going to be the detective’s protege. Eventually, Ray and Albert strike again, and there’s a third act countdown to see if Scudder can redeem himself in the face of their monstrosity.
The script, which Frank also wrote from a novel by Lawrence Block, is nothing especially noteworthy. But it is relatively economical and well-structured, and has the good sense to realize that its flashes of humanity will be that much more valuable for being somewhat tricky to find. Setting the entire cast amongst the drug-running underworld obliterates any easy moral distinctions from the outset. Judgement is useless, and we are left to find what good we can in each character wherever it may be. This is humanity amidst the ruins.
Occasionally you can see A Walk Among The Tombstones trying for an effect like the profoundly unsettling Prisoners. Yet the demands of the crime thriller genre also keep yanking it back from clearing that threshold. Sometimes it edges up to ludicrousness, as with a climactic stand off and its aftermath, intercut with an unwieldy narration of the twelve steps of Alcoholics Anonymous.(e.g. “We have humbly asked God to remove our shortcoming.”)
Yet the movie manages to hold itself together more often than not, and it’s intentions are laudable. Underneath the crime thriller exterior, there is a deep sadness at all the myriad ways human beings find to relentless damage and destroy one another. The film ends not in triumph, but in a profoundly well-earned sleep, as well as and a modest effort to remember the few good things achieved amidst a good deal of horror.https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=O6Ttj9tXzCA