'Tombstones' a gritty film noir revamp

Universal

By Jamie Bircoll, Daily Film Editor
Published September 21, 2014

This is not “Taken.” This isn’t “Nonstop” or “Unknown.” This is sharp, gritty film noir set in the underbelly of New York City, but it’s not your typical New York Cityscape; the richest inhabitants are the drug traffickers, the pure-at-heart are the homeless — no glistening skyscrapers watching over the good people, only grey and dark and gloom, and a man, with his own demons, who slips in and out of the shadows.

A Walk Among the Tombstones


B+
Rave & Quality 16
Universal Studios

That man is Liam Neeson, and at last, in “A Walk Among the Tombstones,” he is presented with a film for which his imposing stature and acting gravitas are put to good use. Here, he is not the badass running around the city killing all those who stand in his way, dropping threatening phone calls and occasional one-liners in an only mildly concealed Irish accent. Instead, his badassery stems from screen presence alone, in the way the camera sits at his back as he walks through the rain of a dark fall night, slightly slouched to broaden his already large 6’4 frame. God he’s cool.

Neeson plays Matt Scudder, a retired cop and recovering alcoholic who now works as an unlicensed private eye, unbound by the law. Through a fellow AA attendee, he is set up with heroin trafficker Kenny (Dan Stevens, TV’s “Downton Abbey”), who offers Scudder $20,000 to find the men who brutally murdered his wife. From there, we get a slow-burning mystery that progresses at a sometimes uneven pace as Scudder works a particularly unglamorous case — unglamorous in that it’s sometimes kind of boring. The job consists of a lot of research, a lot of discussing and a lot of sitting, contemplating, replaying events. The adrenaline junkie should find his fix somewhere else.

But writer-director Scott Frank (“Minority Report”) opts to replace those action-thriller clichés with something more thoughtful: his leading man. Notice how many shots there are of Neeson with his back to the camera just staring or walking, and notice how effective they are at setting the solemn tone of this New York underworld. Marvel at the camerawork as it pans from Neeson’s face, tracking his eyes first to the right to the man he’s following, then to the left to the man who’s following him. Frank submerges the viewer in this world, this throwback to the archetypal days of film noir. All those classic noir flourishes (the hero patiently waiting in the dark room reveals himself to a suspect with the illumination of a desk lamp, etc.) make appearances but with an updated yet natural feel.

Supporting turns by Stevens and Brian “Astro” Bradley (“Earth to Echo”), as a spunky homeless kid Scudder takes under his wing, are welcome, but it’s the few scenes that put Scudder with cemetery groundskeeper James Loogan (Ólafur Darri Ólafsson) that really shine. Ólafsson, best known as The Yellow King of “True Detective,” brings just the right amount of weird and vulnerable to match Neeson’s cool and confident to create some truly compelling moments; one can only wish they were more plentiful.

Because “A Walk Among the Tombstones” is just one book in a 19-book series by Lawrence Block, one can only hope for more Matt Scudder. The film is something of a throwback, taking place in 1999 — the decade of “Seven” and “Primal Fear” and “The Silence of the Lambs.” Movies like “Tombstones” are rare these days; they’re the kinds that don’t explode in your face but force you to take in the gravity of the moment, to experience the darkness and to hope that the man in the shadows is on your side.