‘A Walk Among The Tombstones’ is a movie about a retired cop and ex-alcoholic named Matt Scudder who is hired by a drug trafficker to track down the kidnappers who killed his wife. Reluctantly, Scudder takes the case and as he investigates, he discovers that the kidnappers-slash-murderers have committed similar crimes before, and that the victim has always been family members or partners of drug dealers. Helped along by a homeless teenager named TJ who has aspirations of being a private investigator himself, Scudder’s investigation leads him into the world of drug dealing, torture, the DEA, and strange, pigeon-fancying cemetery groundskeepers.
Liam Neeson does a great job of playing the stern yet likeable unlicensed private investigator; he even plays a chirpier, younger version of Scudder during the opening of the movie and his sprightly hop and skip down the stairs is quite impressive for a man in his sixties. Brian Bradley (who is known to most people as Astro, a rapper and ‘X-Factor’ contestant) plays the character of TJ very well too; you feel sorry for him and empathise with his struggle against chronic disease, bullying, and homelessness. The pair have an unusual but engrossing chemistry, like that of a student and a sensei or a senior cop and a rookie tagging along. The plucky sidekick in the form of TJ also brings an added element of fun to what otherwise could be a very morose and predictable film. With TJ learning the tricks of the trade from library books and musing over his investigator pseudonym, I wouldn’t mind watching a spin-off of ‘Daunte Culpepper: Private Investigator’ on the strength of his character alone.
The script is well written with TJ constantly speaking 90s slang and then having to explain himself to Scudder. The “Ironical” callback line in particular is quite funny, and it brings a moment of levity to the grim subject matter. Given the themes of kidnapping, rape, torture, and murder, you would think that this film would be completely bleak and disheartening to watch, but thanks to Scott Frank (who also wrote the screenplay) this movie is more moody than depressing. The overall tone is both sombre and brooding at times, it’s not necessarily tense or thrilling but the steady pace coupled with the distressed, pre-millenial urban aesthetic makes the unfolding plot very intriguing. The investigation element of the film isn’t exactly a clue-laden puzzle, but it’s handled very well nonetheless, and even though you know who is committing the crimes, you are very interested in the kidnappers themselves and how Scudder will discover their identity.
The story is set amongst the urban decay of New York in 1999 and this period is a great setting for a pre-smartphone plot where an investigator has to go to a library to scroll through microfiche and also to search the web. There’s possibly too many Y2K references (you can see “Y2K” in graffiti, print, and taxi-top ads) but that being said, the people involved in the making of this film have recreated the early and late-nineties pretty well with the movie set in both 1991 and 1999. The contrast in weather from a brighter and sunnier early 90s to a gloomy late 90s is apt (it’s how many people look at the decade in retrospect) and the final scene where the camera pans out to a pre-9/11 Manhattan skyline is slightly foreboding despite being unconnected to the plot.
There are also little touches which add to the tone of the film such as the reading of the Alcoholics Anonymous 12 steps during a ransom pay-off montage (which is well handled by the editor) and the score by Carlos Rafael Rivera is also very ominous and it adds to the murky and shadowy aesthetic of the film. In fact, the look, the sound, the feel, the plot, the pacing, not to mention the characters and the acting are all handled brilliantly, and all these elements come together to make a film that feels like it was created during the good ol’ days of film stock and analogue projection. For a film made in 2014, this proves certain film-makers can realistically recreate the grainy and atmospheric past using modern digital equipment.
‘A Walk Among The Tombstones’ isn’t overly stylish and it isn’t too understated either, in fact the overall look is very much like a thriller from the 1970s. The film contains oodles of atmosphere, yes it’s a drama-slash-thriller but the look and tone wouldn’t feel out of place in a horror, in fact certain scenes are reminiscent of William Friedkin’s ‘The Exorcist’, which says a lot about the talents of the director and cinematographer.
For me this is a very underrated movie, I always come across it on various streaming services and the rating always seems too low for a movie this good. Give it a decade or so and I’m sure that ‘A Walk Among The Tombstones’ will be looked back with much more affection and acclaim than it has received so far. If you’ve never seen it before, it’s definitely worth a watch.
An Enjoyable Walk.