A Walk Among the Tombstones

October 25, 2014
Liam Neeson in 'A Walk Among the Tombstones' (2014)
Liam Neeson in 'A Walk Among the Tombstones' (2014)

Lawrence Block is a crime writer whose style seems made for the movies. Flat descriptive passages are punctuated by bursts of terse, witty dialogue. After a few pages the film is already rolling in your head. Add Liam Neeson as Block’s ex-alco, ex-NYPD, private dick, Matthew Scudder, and the package seems close to perfect. All one needs now are drug dealers, psychotic killers and a love interest.

The most curious aspect of Scott Frank’s very serviceable adaptation of Block’s 1992 novel, A Walk Among the Tombstones, is that he has chosen to dispense with the feminine element. Out goes Scudder’s girlfriend, Elaine, and the subplot she brings. The only women in this film are victims, destined to be carved up by the bad guys.

Another interesting change is that the drug dealer and his brother are no longer Lebanese ‘Arabs’ named Khoury, but white boys of European origins called Kristo. With all the paranoia the western world feels for ‘men of middle-eastern appearance’, it was probably a good idea not to demonise the Arabs again.

The essence of the story remains unchanged. Scudder gets approached by Peter, a colleague at Alcoholics Anonymous, played by Boyd Holbrook, who is rapidly becoming a ubiquitous presence in American cinema. Peter wants Scudder to meet his brother, Kenny (Dan Stevens, a long way from Downton Abbey), who has an urgent problem. That brother turns out to be a dope trafficker living in an elegant house in Brooklyn. The problem is that his wife has been kidnapped and returned in pieces, even after he paid the ransom.

Clearly we are not dealing with the kind of honorable crooks often found in Hollywood movies. These guys are liars, rapists and killers, who take pleasure in inflicting pain. In this context, Kenny seems like a highly respectable businessman, although Scudder still has to wrestle with his conscience before taking a drug dealer’s money.

As his investigation proceeds, with the assistance of a smart-talking street kid named T.J. (Brian ‘Astro’ Bradley) whom he finds in the public library, it becomes apparent this is not the first time the killers have struck. Scudder unearths a trail of murdered women and scattered limbs that seems to point to a connection with the Drugs Squad.

The clever part of this is that it obliges us to see the drug dealers as relatively harmless alongside the homicidal maniacs who are preying on them. Drug dealing is normalised, like arms dealing was in Andrew Niccol’s Lord of War (2005): I’m not telling people to kill themselves or others, but if I don’t sell them this stuff somebody else will. So I may as well make a buck.

The real danger – the deep, dark, paranoid horror – in American life comes from the sadistic serial killer. After all, drug dealers are only preying on disreputable drug users, but serial killers are grabbing innocent people. There is a twisted set of moral distinctions being flaunted here, which must have given Block, then Frank, a frisson of wicked pleasure. Try as one might this demarcation between good bad guys and bad bad guys cannot be reconciled with wholesome American family values. Even Scudder’s relationship with T.J. doesn’t manage to descend into rank sentimentality.

We see enough of the villains’ activities to know this is really nasty stuff. Thankfully we are spared the sight of female bodies being tortured and dismembered. The violence that does occur is confronting enough, but not out of the ordinary for today’s cinema, where you have to work hard to get beyond an MA 15+. In the United States some believe that lighting a cigarette on screen should draw an R rating.

For a film with such gruesome undertones, A Walk Among the Tombstones is memorable not for gore and violence, but for old-fashioned detective work, and for Liam Neeson’s nicely understated performance in the lead role. If you need a hard man who looks like he might be spending his evenings at AA. Neeson is an excellent candidate. He also has that terminally depressed look which is standard issue for all successful fictional detectives. Female viewers may be depressed by the relentlessly masculine outlook of a story, in which women, in the words of one of the killers, are only body parts.

A Walk Among the Tombstones
Written & directed by Scott Frank, after a novel by Lawrence Block
Starring Liam Neeson, Dan Stevens, Boyd Holbrook, Brian ‘Astro’ Bradley, David Harbour, Adam David Thompson
USA, rated MA 15+ , 114 mins

Published in the Australian Financial Review, Saturday 25th October, 2014.