Silver Screen: A Walk Among the Tombstones ***
Director and screenwriter Scott Frank takes a more measured, if slightly more lurid approach in A Walk Among the Tombstones, which is almost exactly as grim as its title suggests. The adaptation of a novel from prolific mystery writer Lawrence Block follows recurring protagonist/dour private investigator Matthew Scudder (Liam Neeson).
Like Robert McCall, Scudder lives in an austere apartment, and his after-work hobby appears to be practicing his flinty gaze and faraway stare. Scudder used to be a cop before a tragedy, teased early and gradually revealed through a series of flashbacks, compelled him to quit booze and the force at the same time. It’s through his recovery program that he meets a junkie whose drug-pusher brother (Downton Abbey’s Dan Stevens) is offering $40,000 to whomever can discover the identity of a kidnapper who held his wife for ransom, then killed her anyway after the money changed hands.
Scudder is essentially the same weary former killer Neeson has been riffing on since Taken, as resigned and death-obsessed as his flinty survivalist from The Grey, and spending his every waking hour chasing down filched damsels. This time his investigation leads him to a psychopathic duo (one of whom is played by David Harbour, our sentient recurring motif) who are tormenting drug runners and their families, apparently as much for the thrill as the infusions of cash. They’re a chilling, inexplicable pair, compelled to sadism for no other reason than author Block revels in queasy concoctions of sex and death.
The story’s one kinda bright spot is Scudder’s unlikely sidekick T.J. (Brian “Astro” Bradley), a streetwise but congenitally sick runaway he meets in a library computer lab. Scudder’s loathing of all things digital leaves certain gaps in his investigatory abilities, for which he enlists T.J.’s services. The character is overwritten and precocious, but his plucky resilience is exactly the ray of light this sometimes unnecessarily dark story needs.
Frank is a dynamite crimewriter responsible for two of the best Elmore Leonard adaptations, Get Shorty and Out of Sight, as well as his own original neo-noir tale, The Lookout. He has an ear for dialogue and a sharp sense of composition, although at times the muted colors of A Walk Among the Tombstones are dreary to the point of overkill. He transforms a mediocre story into a better-than-average movie, which is an accomplishment, although it’s a shame he wasn’t able to make another original picture like The Lookout, which was underrated but superior in every way. Missing here are the morbid jauntiness and tonal shifts so essential to both Elmore Leonard stories and Frank’s riffs on them. Personally, I like my escapism to be a little heavier on the escape.
Follow Bryan Miller on Twitter@bmillercomedy.