Friday, September 19, 2014

A Walk Among the Tombstones: Well-executed noir

A Walk Among the Tombstones (2014) • View trailer 
Four stars. Rated R, for strong violence, disturbing images, profanity and fleeting nudity

By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 9.19.14

Veteran novelist Lawrence Block’s Matt Scudder hasn’t been seen on the big screen since all the way back in 1986, when Jeff Bridges played the character in director Hal Ashby’s lamentably sloppy adaptation of the series’ fifth book, 8 Million Ways to Die.

Having persuaded TJ (Brian "Astro" Bradley, right) to accept the offer of a hot meal,
Scudder (Liam Neeson) is increasingly amused by the kid's determination to somehow
help out with the developing investigation.
Director/scripter Scott Frank has done a far better job, with A Walk Among the Tombstones (tenth novel out of 17, for those keeping track). Frank economically blends Scutter’s essential “origin story” with this book’s core plotline, and the result is a brooding, thoughtful detective thriller firmly set in the modern noir genre.

Frank certainly knows the territory. I praised his scripting chops just last week, noting his involvement with some of the genre’s best modern authors: James Lee Burke (Heaven’s Prisoners), Elmore Leonard (Out of Sight, Get Shorty and even TV’s woefully under-appreciated Karen Sisco) and now Block.

Frank’s scripting chops are measured, intelligent and — most important — faithful to the tone and atmosphere of whichever author he sources. The result always has been a compelling, tightly wound thriller, and his handling of A Walk Among the Tombstones is no exception.

Bridges looked much too young and exuberant as Scudder, back in the day; this film’s Liam Neeson is a far superior choice. He radiates just the right amount of world-weary melancholy, Scudder being a classic flawed and tragic figure: a man never able to forgive himself for past sins, yet forever struggling to do just that.

He’s also a rather unusual knight errant: an alcoholic ex-cop gone private, but not quite. Scudder can’t be bothered with a license, and he doesn’t advertise his services; as he explains, Neeson’s wry smile wrapped around the words, he “does favors for friends.”

His concept of “friendship” is both broader and looser than most, and this particular case begins with a request from Peter Kristo (Boyd Holbrook), a semi-regular in Scudder’s Alcoholics Anonymous group. The potential “client” actually is Peter’s brother Kenny (Dan Stevens), whose wife was just kidnapped and brutally murdered ... after the ransom was paid.

Scudder initially declines, insisting that such matters should be handled by the FBI. But Kenny can’t really seek official involvement, because he’s a heroin trafficker. That said, he’s also a grieving husband seeking revenge, and Scudder isn’t inclined to pass moral judgment; he remains all too aware of his own shortcomings.

Which, needless to say, makes him a fascinating character long enjoyed by readers who’ve followed his emotional highs and lows during almost four decades of Block’s novels.

Neeson’s performance is cool and clinical: seemingly detached, but not really. His battle against alcohol’s allure is very much a part of his character here, as it is in the books. And his unique method of atonement — abandoning the police force, essentially dropping off the grid — is accompanied by an almost fatalistic assessment of his own mortality: not quite a death wish, but certainly a visible miasma of resignation.

AA’s 12-step penitence mantra also plays an important role in his life, and Frank cleverly weaves this element into his narrative, particularly during the climactic final act. That said, Scudder occasionally lies by omission, even during his AA confessions; years later, he has trouble confronting the alcohol-laden catastrophe that brought him to this ongoing spiritual crisis.

Neeson skillfully embodies this wealth of emotions, his shoulders often slumped beneath the weight of Scudder’s regrets. And yet this isn’t a man who yields to despair, and that’s an important distinction; Scudder hasn’t lost any of his investigative chops, or his bone-dry sense of humor. Neeson also has the imposing physical presence required to succeed in such a profession.

Indeed, my only objection is that, at 63, Neeson is too old to continue long in the role, should this film become a hit (a reward it certainly deserves).

Neeson’s impressive gravitas aside, truly unforgettable crime thrillers get much of their oomph from the creepy behavior of their villains. Consider a few truly memorable antecedents: Robert Mitchum, in Night of the Hunter; Anthony Perkins, in Psycho; Anthony Hopkins, in Silence of the Lambs; Kevin Spacey, in Se7en; and Javier Bardem, in No Country for Old Men. Obsessed psychopaths who truly are the stuff of nightmares.

To their company we now can add David Harbour and Adam David Thompson, as Ray and Albert, the two freakazoids who propel this film’s action. They’re deranged in a manner that chills us to the bone, although Frank mostly hints at their depravity, letting our imaginations run wild (which they do; trust me).

Indeed, we don’t even get a good glimpse of these sick puppies until the second act, their movements and behavior initially suggested by gloved hands here; a flat, emotionless voice there; and the sinister panel truck in which they navigate New York’s back streets, seeking their next victim.

It’s a testament to both actors that, once we do meet Ray and Albert, they’re every bit as ominously, malevolently awful as we’ve come to believe. Harbour serves as the duo’s collective voice, issuing demands via telephone; Thompson remains mostly silent ... which, actually, makes him much worse.

Nor is their deranged “handling” of Kenny’s wife a one-off experiment; Ray and Albert are confirmed serial killers, as Scudder suspects right from the start. Investigative back-tracking — a nifty montage sequence orchestrated by Frank and editor Jill Savitt — leads him to James Loogan (Ólafur Darri Ólafsson), a cemetery groundskeeper who was unlucky enough to find the remains of an earlier victim.

Ólafsson’s Loogan also is strikingly warped: a hulking loner who finds solace with the pigeons he nurtures in a coop on the roof of his mother’s apartment building. Actually, pretty much everybody Scudder encounters is unpleasant, unpalatable or downright evil in some manner, but his reaction is pragmatic: all in a day’s work.

The one exception is TJ (Brian “Astro” Bradley), a homeless young artist Scudder befriends while doing some research in the public library. TJ is a marvelous character, engagingly played by Bradley: a wary, street-smart kid with an unexpected fondness for detective literature, who fancies himself a savvy pee-eye in the Hammett/Chandler mode.

Scudder finds the kid amusing, but he isn’t looking for a protégé. Not that Scudder’s opinion matters, since TJ has his own ideas.

The story’s other important character is New York City herself, long an essential element in Block’s literary oeuvre. (He’s a one-man writing machine, with several other series characters and numerous one-offs to his credit.) This story unfolds against the backdrop of a bleak, often rainy Five Boroughs winter, splendidly captured by cinematographer Mihai Malaimare Jr. in a manner that amplifies Scudder’s isolation.

Rarely have New York’s mean streets looked meaner, its dilapidated and abandoned multi-story dwellings looming large, like wounded glass-and-concrete monsters waiting for the right moment to exact their own vengeance. Even seemingly bucolic residential neighborhoods become laced with menace, when framed by Malaimare’s lens.

Block’s book was published in 1992; Frank has moved the action forward a jot, to 1999, with an opening prologue in ’91. We’re therefore given a Scudder who operates in a universe not yet populated by smart phones, where his technophobic sensibilities thus far reject the wonders of the nascent Internet; this gives TJ an additional purpose, as he derisively chides his new friend’s Luddite tendencies.

Stevens, a mustache and darker hair color obscuring his most famous role as Matthew Crawley in Britain’s Downton Abbey, persuasively captures Kenny’s smarmy duality: on the one hand an obviously amoral drug baron, on the other a bereft victim who has lost the one thing that he truly, deeply loved and cherished.

Holbrook, in turn, is every inch the twitchy, jittery addict who attends AA meetings in an effort to kick booze, but cheerfully continues to indulge his parallel drug habit.

Carlos Rafael Rivera, late of the Los Angeles-based rock band Zoo Story, delivers a portentous, deeply unsettling orchestral score that operates almost subliminally.

Frank orchestrates his film, and these characters, with accomplished finesse. Based on the results here, he should occupy the director’s chair more often ... but only if it doesn’t interfere with his accomplished scripting. A Walk Among the Tombstones is a gripping, slow-burn thriller: impressively faithful to Block’s book and its long-running protagonist.

Between this and last week’s The Drop, thriller fans are experiencing an embarrassment of riches. Do take advantage.

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