I’ve never been a big fan of the MPAA rating system, which will give a film an R rating, for instance, because of foul language but turn a blind eye toward gun violence because, of course, the language is going to have a more profound negative effect on teenagers in the audience than showing someone blowing away anyone he doesn’t like. But Scott Frank’s new crime thriller, A Walk among the Tombstones, featuring Liam Neeson as unlicensed private eye Matt Scudder, is absolutely worthy of its R rating, and you should keep that in mind as you consider seeing it. From the early flashback sequence in which the camera scans a woman’s body in extreme close-up of what appears at first to be a sexual encounter—until the tape over her mouth and the tear in her eye reveal that this is something much darker—the film examines violence toward women in a way that may have you cringing. It follows Scudder’s investigation of the torture and mutilation of three women by a pair of killers who seem to enjoy brutalizing their victims.
Not that the violence is graphically depicted. To his credit Frank does not engage in gratuitous voyeurism of the thrill-killers’ debauchery. Nearly all of the violence in the film is implied. On the other hand, the women themselves are also only implied: not a single victim of the mass-killers is allowed a speaking part in the film. Two of them we see only in pictures. The third—the woman in the opening sequence—is shown only in those extreme close-ups, and that tape across her mouth is certainly suggestive. As one of the killers tells Scudder at one point, “Once they’re in the van, they’re just body parts.”
The objectification of and violence toward women are seen in the film as the epitome of evil, but the troubling truth is that the film itself also banks on those things to engage the interest of the audience. And curiously it seems to know that is precisely what it is doing, because there is moral ambiguity all over this movie.
The screenplay, written by Frank, is based on a best-selling novel of the same name by Lawrence Block, part of a long-running series of noir crime novels featuring the ex-cop and recovering alcoholic Matthew Scudder. Frank is known particularly as the acclaimed screenwriter of films like Get Shorty (1995), Out of Sight (1998), Minority Report (2002) and The Lookout (2007), which was also his first directing credit on a feature film. His script for this film is nicely done for the most part, with a few surprise twists and some scintillating dialogue. The story follows Block’s novel fairly closely: Scudder, as an alcoholic NYPD cop, had shot three perpetrators in 1991 after they robbed a bar and shot the bartender. After that day he quit drinking, and he is seen several times in the film at AA meetings—an important aspect of his character and one that is apparently important to Block as well.
Eight years later, Scudder, now an unlicensed PI, is approached by a rich young “construction boss” Kenny Kristo (Dan Stevens of Downton Abbey fame) to track down two men who kidnapped his wife, took $400,000 in ransom money from him, and then returned his wife to him in pieces in the trunk of a car. Scudder refuses when he learns that Kristo is in fact a heroin trafficker. But when Kristo comes to him again with a tape of his wife’s brutal murder, Scudder agrees to help, and soon finds that the same killers were responsible for two other grisly murders—also of women connected to the drug world. He knows he needs to catch these psychopaths before they kill again.
In the meantime Scudder has met and befriended T.J., a black homeless teenager who spends most of his time in the public library and helps him with his research (played by rapper Brian “Astro” Bradley from The X Factor). Their relationship is an interesting sidelight in the movie, though has little to do with the main plot. But it is T.J. to whom Scudder reveals his most private secret—the reason he resigned from the police force and gave up drinking. The day he shot the three thieves, one of his shots went astray in a crowd of people and killed a 7-year-old girl (while this is intended as a revelation in the film, the fact that it is revealed in the movie’s preview pretty much ruins any shock value it might have, and excuses me for what may otherwise have been a spoiler alert). When the killers he is tracking kidnap the 14-year-old daughter of a Russian gang lord, Scudder seems on a mission to get the girl back unharmed. Essentially, the film explores Scudder’s search for redemption after his killing of the girl eight years ago. It seems that rescuing this kidnapped girl, and rescuing T.J. from his own dire situation, are the means by which that redemption could be achieved. And so as an audience you end up rooting for the drug dealers. Did I say moral ambiguity?
There is much to admire in this movie. The gritty cinematography from Miahi Malaimare Jr. gives the whole film a grungy, neo-noir look. The score is understated and occasionally truly creepy, as when the romantic music plays over the scene with the gagged woman. And Neeson is remarkable as ever, bringing his empathetic, likable and genuine on-screen persona to the damaged, downtrodden Scudder.
Although the preview makes this film look very much like another Taken style action flick about a vigilante going after criminals with a vengeance and taking no prisoners, that is not what it is, and not who Matt Scudder is. When T.J. asks him what it takes to be a good detective, he answers “Patience. Instinct. Blind luck, mostly.” He says nothing about the “very specific set of skills” his Bryan Mils character has in Taken, nor does he really display any. This is a much more nuanced character, and one that Neeson can sink his formidable thespian chops into.
But there are some things about this film that simply don’t sit right. One of those things is the almost cavalier violence toward women which, though hardly presented positively, is still what drives the men in the movie to take action—that is, it is through the women’s torture that the film’s men define themselves. Another difficulty I had with the film is the way the climactic scene of the film is voiced over by a woman reading the twelve steps of Alcoholics Anonymous. Yes, we see that Scudder is dealing with the demons of his alcoholism, but almost none of the steps are directly applicable to anything that happens in this scene or, for that matter, in the movie in general, especially since nearly all of the steps relate to spiritual guidance from a higher power—a spirituality that we never see Scudder engage in in the film, and which would, given the tormented character Neeson and Frank have created, be completely out of character.
Finally, the film’s conclusion simply seems out of place. A story that has brought us through subtleties of character and complex moral ambiguities suddenly turns Hollywood. Anyone familiar with the novel knows that the book ends in a completely different way, though apparently one that would ratchet up the violence factor. Why Frank backed away from it is a matter of conjecture, but the ending as it is destroyed, for me, any chance for Scudder’s redemption in this film. His life remains unsettled and his morality ambiguous. Perhaps that is what Frank wanted, but it left me feeling unsatisfied.
In the end, while I’d like to give the film a higher rating, because I would probably go to it again, there were just too many things that bothered me. I’m going to go with two Jacqueline Susanns and half a Tennyson for this one.