Movie Review: A Walk Among the Tombstones (2014)- While Scott Frank’s Throwback Noir Might be Predictable It’s a Welcome Change in Style for Hollywood Mysteries

liam-neeson-a-walk-among-the-tombstones-600x399Familiar Private Detective names from the 30s and 40s such as Sam Spade or Phillip Marlowe seem as though they are becoming more and more distant relics of the past, or rather a disappearing movie avenue where amoral men were hired to seek out the truth no matter how dark the trail led. While names like Phillip Marlowe may have originated in novel form they have since been immortalized beyond the written page through the medium of film where the likes of Humphrey Bogart (The Big Sleep), Dick Powell (Murder, My Sweet), and Elliot Gould (The Long Goodbye) brought that gumshoe spirit to intriguing mysteries that challenge our mind and test our perceptions of morals. There’s a saying that seems appropriate that they don’t make things like they used to anymore but don’t tell that to director/writer Scott Frank who sought to pay homage to the great detective mysteries of yore with his sophomore feature A Walk Among the Tombstones. Despite the film’s glossed over character motivations and general narrative predictability we are fortunate enough to get a film that touts enough atmospheric charge, performance credibility, and intriguing mystery to separate itself from carbon copy Liam Neeson headed thrillers, such as Non-Stop, Unknown, and Taken 2. A Walk Among the Tombstones isn’t an imaginative Private Detective mystery thriller nor does it take drastic measures to make a claim to be but it’s a competently made film in cinematic style that is somewhat enhanced by the presence of the incomparable Liam Neeson who has found his mid-life crisis niche. Even if Scott Frank’s homage to the detective mysteries of old won’t ever make a list of the best kind of noir mysteries we wish to revisit again and again it serves as a reminder that sometimes films can be made with enveloping atmosphere and intriguing reflections on the darkness of human nature.

The noir genre isn’t unfamiliar to writer/director Scott Frank since his first directorial feature was an equally well-tuned engine driven basic thriller entitled The Lookout that was a serviceable experience of psychologically intricate characters combined with occasional deviations into intense nerve testing moments. A Walk Among the Tombstones seems to follow suit though it brings with it The Lookout’s weaknesses as well as its strengths, including flimsy character development and an awfully predictable framework. Protagonist Matt Scudder (Liam Neeson), an ex-cop turned Private Detective for ominous reasons, attends AA meetings for being an alcoholic though neither in the back story nor in his day to day behavior do we see any dependency or temptation to drift back into his demon in a bottle. Without much of a visual or narrative importance toward his drinking it seems to just be an unexplored trait that is told rather than shown. Without that specific trait Matt Scudder seems to become more and more like every other Liam Neeson incarnation instead of having the great possibility of being a layered character with actual weaknesses and the determination to look those weaknesses in the eye and rise above them. Instead we’re served a rather typical Liam Neeson character in a framework that is predictable yet levitated due to the visual insight and technical enhancements that allow A Walk Among the Tombstones to be only slightly deformed from the typical cookie cutter Hollywood thriller. Despite the obvious weaknesses, Scott Frank’s script (based on the Lawrence Block novel) does feature a few of his strengths such as his penchant for sharp dialogue and a meticulously organized thriller that unveils with grace though the outcome seems ever more obvious as it goes along. Luckily the strength of how a story is unraveled is a uniquely cinematic strength that Scott Frank as director adopts with full force giving his script that enhancement needed to be something slightly more than average.

A Walk Among The Tombstones - David Harbour Wallpaper

Noir cinema has an expectation of visual elements that are hard to erase from the subconscious and Scott Frank seems aware of those particular elements since he adopts them with true form and grace in both sight and sound. Working with the intriguing cinematographer Mihai Malaimare Jr. (The Master, Tetro), Scott Frank has given A Walk Among the Tombstones some refreshing visual life in focusing on the greyish texture of a New York City that seems shadowed, mysterious, and dangerous. Casting light where it’s selectively needed generates that feeling of darkness in the situations and within the characters giving each sequence its own visual touch. Whether it’s the eerily lit basement belonging to the killers where blood from a body seeps on the one light bulb lit wooden steps or a cemetery showdown that has merely the moonlight as a light there seems to be an adoption of the noir elements of old as seen in classics as Howard Hawks’ The Big Sleep or Billy Wilder’s Double Indemnity. Noir is dependent on atmosphere and A Walk Among the Tombstones gives plenty of it with a combination of slow moving camera work, selective sound design, and most importantly the meditative music from Carlos Rafael Rivera. If it weren’t for this careful homage to the Private Detective movies that have come before it you can be sure A Walk Among the Tombstones would have felt misguided and a complete mess of tone, character, and events. The slow meditative drawn out thriller might turn off some adamant Liam Neeson patrons who require a massive body count or senseless action events but that’s what makes Scott Frank’s Liam Neeson headed thriller so welcoming as it seeks to insert a miniscule amount of braininess in a stylish mystery that wants you to pay attention. The downside of an atmospheric mystery is that when the result is predictable you can feel the film dragging and while this is true for Scott Frank’s sophomore feature it has the help of a charismatic lead to carry us onward to its predictable yet well designed conclusion.

It’s undeniable that Liam Neeson as an actor and film headliner has a presence that is unrivaled by many of his stature, gender, and age making him a remarkable talent and unexpected featured regular on the top of the blockbuster matinee. However, it seems as though ever since the huge positive response of Taken back in 2009 the quality of his films have sort of dropped considerably with Joe Carnahan’s The Grey being a slight exception to the low quality rule. Films such as Unknown and Wrath of the Titans have just been overexposing us to Liam’s presence often times letting us forget just how talented of an actor he can be as evidenced from the majority of his career from Schindler’s List to Michael Collins. In A Walk Among the Tombstones we see Liam Neeson in his most comfortable roles exercising his typical aged snappy wisdom and physical bravado that we’ve seen all too many times before but this time it’s within an atmospheric framework that requires the knob to be turned down from the This Is Spinal Tap 11. Throughout the film we see a toned down Neeson as he showcases his talents for being an on screen presence but combined with an intense subtlety that he utilizes with his controlled gaze and internalized battle of right and wrong. Despite the lack of focus on the character of Matt Scudder in the script where his motivations on his current state aren’t explored in their entirety Liam Neeson is able to take that thin foundation and make something slightly more substantial out of it. Beyond Neeson the performances are inconsistent and unremarkable with David Harbour as one of the gruesome killers and hostage negotiator serving as a strong enough foil for Liam Neeson’s hard edged negotiating. All in all if A Walk Among the Tombstones reminds us of anything it’s that Liam Neeson definitely has the talent and presence to carry a quality film beyond the nonsense he’s been doing for so long.

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Most people who will seek out A Walk Among the Tombstones will be for pure Liam Neeson fandom that has the expectation of countless bodies flying around, loads of gunshots fired, and explosions galore to distract us all from the flat narrative that really isn’t telling any sort of actual story. However, for those movie goers that are tired of the monotony and senseless, repetitive action that is linked to all Liam Neeson films then there might be a slight glimmer of difference because of director/writer Scott Frank’s atmospheric homage to the noir genre. A gruesome mystery, an amoral protagonist, and a darkened setting serve as a tonal shift away from the usual overproduced mysteries that Hollywood seems to adopt based on the lowest demographic of audiences needing everything to be explained to them. While A Walk Among the Tombstones doesn’t exactly shock you in its unraveling mystery there is something to be said about the way a mystery is told and Scott Frank’s capable cinematic technique of following the classic style of the 30s and 40s definitely gives the mystery a much needed addition of storytelling grace. Scott Frank’s sophomore film may not enter the same classic realm where Phillip Marlowe and Sam Spade are forever remembered but it serves as an appropriate dedication to those tales of yesteryear that may inspire more filmmakers to take the risk in exchanging flashiness for genuine, meticulous style that is in desperate need of resurrection from being too long among the storytelling tombstones.

Grade: C+

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