So far, the fall movie season of 2014 seems to be all about the crime movies. This is more than fine with me, especially if the upwards trend continues with this weekend’s release of Gone Girl. The Drop was fine but unremarkable, and A Walk Among the Tombstones is more than fine and very nearly remarkable. With a little more character development, I could have seen A Walk Among the Tombstones become a classic of the genre.
In the early nineties, alcoholic detective Mathew Scudder (Liam Neeson) shoots and kills a group of men attempting to hold up his bar. After this, he gets into AA and gets sober, but the event still haunts him. He works as an unlicensed private detective, and his current case is finding out who kidnapped and killed the wife of drug dealer Kenny Kristo (Dan Stevens). This draws him and his teenage sidekick TJ (Brian “Astro” Bradley) into a world of frighteningly greedy misogynist psychopaths, while Scudder is still battling his demons from a few years back.
My favorite thing about this film is that it has a great sense of history. It knows where it’s coming from and plays into that in order to make the film richer. It has a wonderfully noir feel, mixed with some Hitchcockian psychological weirdness. Scudder is an almost ideal noir hero, a man who reluctantly gets drawn into a world of wrongdoing, with a cloud of tragedy hanging over him. We eventually find out why Scudder is so damaged by what happened earlier, and my biggest complaint with this movie is that I wished it tied into the story more directly. The crimes in the present do relate to Scudder’s past crimes in that they both involve the slaughter of innocents, but in Scudder’s case it was not particularly psychologically motivated so the link is not as strong as it could be otherwise.
There also a lot of interesting gender stuff going on here, and I say interesting rather than offensive because it plays into the mindset of the characters. Women are hardly ever given the chance to say or do anything, and are generally just hapless victims in the film. Continuing the comparisons to film noir, there really is no femme fatale in this movie. There is also some Scorsese-style slow motion when Kristo’s wife is shown in flashbacks, and an intense focus on a painting of her in Kristo’s home, reminiscent of Laura and to some extent Vertigo. More slow motion occurs when another victim is shown.
The main thing that this film has that The Drop doesn’t is a crushingly dark tone. The Drop should have had it, but didn’t really. A Walk Among the Tombstones gets that right. Tone is one of the hardest things to criticize in film I think, because it’s sort of a cumulative effect with a lot of contributing factors that are hard to pinpoint. I’m writing this too long after I saw it and that’s my fault, so I can’t remember what might have contributed to Tombstones‘ tone, but just know that this film gets it right. This is how crime movies should feel.
A final word of warning: this film is pretty disturbing. It’s not so much what is explicitly shown, but the story itself. The violence against women here is often outside of the normal level of decency in adhered to in movies. If you can stand it though, it’s still a very good movie. I still believe it could have been better if Scudder’s past life and the present crimes had been more directly related; it would have contributed to his character more and ratcheted up the tension, but nevertheless the film was still very engrossing.
“People are afraid of all the wrong things.”
Long story short: 3.5/4 stars
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