Every year, so many artless, gormless, generically slick thrillers make their way into theaters that any time a genre director displays basic filmmaking smarts, the result ends up seeming like a retro novelty. Such is the case with writer-director Scott Frank’s murky potboiler A Walk Among The Tombstones, which stars Liam Neeson as Matt Scudder, the unlicensed, recovering alcoholic gumshoe created by Lawrence Block. (Scudder was previously played by Jeff Bridges in Hal Ashby’s 8 Million Ways To Die.)
Based on a 1992 Block novel, but set in 1999—which is probably as close as Frank could get to the present day while preserving the mechanics of a pre-Internet detective story—the movie finds Scudder on the hunt for a couple of serial killers who only target the families of drug traffickers. It’s a repetitive, shoe-leather-type investigation, which mostly consists of Scudder schlepping around New York, pulling out a phony badge, and asking questions. With the exception of one unsettling interlude involving a cemetery groundskeeper (Ólafur Darri Ólafsson), there’s not much to distinguish Tombstones from any number of procedural mysteries, at least not in terms of plot or performance. The pleasure of hard-boiled, meet-and-interrogate movies lies in the flavor they put into characters and milieux; aside from the aforementioned groundskeeper and his rooftop pigeon coop, none of the people or places the imposing, gravelly-voiced hero visits would seem out of place in a middling episode of Law & Order: SVU.
Some kudos are due, however, to Frank and Neeson—the latter continuing his run as this generation’s answer to Charles Bronson—for handling Scudder’s commitment to sobriety with credible understatement. Scudder’s daily attendance of Alcoholics Anonymous meetings is integrated into both his work process and into the plot; it’s a frame for the story, rather than mere window dressing.
In fact, A Walk Among The Tombstones is a movie that’s easier to appreciate for its frames—both visual and narrative—than what it puts in them. Composed for the big screen with typical confidence by cinematographer Mihai Malaimare Jr. (The Master, Tetro), Tombstones looks like what old-timers would call “a real movie.” It’s sparing with closeups and rich with negative space, purposeful overhead shots, and one-point perspectives where the diagonal lines formed by streets, hallways, and stairways converge into a vanishing point.
Periodically, Frank—a screenwriter whose pulp cred includes the screenplays for Get Shorty and Out Of Sight—pulls out one of those resourceful tricks of design and direction that, decades ago, were the stock-in-trade of B-filmmakers. The scene that sets the plot into motion—a conversation between Scudder and AA acquaintance Peter (Boyd Holbrook)—consists mostly of a single static shot, composed around a diner booth, with Peter at first framed out; a pre-credits sequence depicting the incident that led Scudder to leave the NYPD includes an effective, coherent foot chase and ends with a shoot-out rendered in two rigidly geometric wide shots. These moments—too economical and workmanlike to register as flourishes—aren’t enough to turn A Walk Among The Tombstones into a good movie, but they give it a sense of confidence and form that’s all too rare in today’s thrillers.