Writer/Director Scott Frank adapts Lawrence Block’s novel A Walk Among the Tombstones, a bleak crime thriller depicting an ugly world made uglier by human beings. The ever reliable Liam Neeson stars as Matt Scudder, a goofily named gumshoe ex-cop hired by a high profile drug dealer to investigate the murder of his wife. Frank attempts, very early on, to create a sticky, slimy atmosphere, highlighted by a fantastically creepy opening credits montage depicting sexual assault and violation of a captive woman. Carlos Rafael Rivera’s soundtrack rolls softly behind the credits and it sets the film off to an effectively murky start.
Lawrence Block himself has stated that Neeson is, “at the top of” his “personal Scudder wishlist,” and it’s easy to tell why. Neeson’s acting skill set is perfect for the character, and here he gets a chance to give his vacant, distant, alcoholic skills a real workout. Scudder’s snooping around is often inter cut with stock “villain stalking” sequences, with David Harbour putting on his creepiest act possible. Indeed, A Walk Among the Tombstones seems driven to get under the audience’s skin. Scott Frank, throughout the film, practically shouts, “Look how bleak and gritty this is!” as multiple images of provocative violence flash one after another.
Fortunately he succeeds. He is depicting a world in which there are few heroes (several of the most “sympathetic” characters are gangsters) and the heroes (Scudder), trudge along with their collars turned up, nihilism seeping into every word of dialogue. Only one woman in the entire film has a line of dialogue (and it’s in voice over, no less) and the rest are raped, killed, and butchered. The cinematography matches the tone perfectly, drained of much color and dealing with shades of gray.
The film does hit many of the genre tropes beat for beat but Frank’s execution is admirable (the film’s final 15 minutes are riveting). In fact, he has convinced me to never read the novel, as he takes a weak, worn out story and weaves it into a gritty thriller full of 70’s-esque toughness. It’s a dark, nasty world and people are even nastier. The lone spot of optimism comes in the form of Scudder’s relationship with TJ, a homeless adolescent with aspirations of becoming a P.I. Ultimately Frank’s direction overcomes his own lackluster writing (the villains are empty and Dan Stevens is given nothing to work with) with admirable direction. If anything, it acts as a vehicle for the consistent Neeson, who takes a break from endless action sequels to take on a (relatively speaking) compelling character.