Saturday, September 20, 2014

Truer Detective: A WALK AMONG THE TOMBSTONES


Scott Frank knows what he’s doing. He specializes in crime stories, heists and mysteries, serious-minded and skillfully puzzled out. With his scripts for the likes of Minority Report and Out of Sight and his 2007 directorial debut The Lookout, he crafts stories of dangerous, or at least resourceful, people trapped in unfortunate situations. A Walk Among the Tombstones, his latest film as writer and director, is hard and hardboiled, the stuff of typewriter clacks, bottles of brown liquor, and gristle. It’s a detective story about a man with deep psychological wounds who works quietly in the shadows. He doesn’t like what he does, but needs to do it as a way of working through his past mistakes.

Frank’s filmmaking craftsmanship is impeccable. There’s a classical restraint to the steady, crisply blocked stillness of the shots. It has throwback appeal in the patient setup and slow reveal of one clue after another. Based on a 1992 novel by crime fiction legend Lawrence Block, the film finds pleasures in the investigation, watching Detective Matthew Scudder think things through. Once a cop, he was in a bad incident resulting in the death of a little girl. Since then, he’s been haunted by that moment, eking out a living as an unlicensed private investigator. As the movie begins, he’s asked to find a kidnapper who snatched a drug trafficker’s wife, got ransom money, then killed her anyway.

Scudder, Block’s most famous creation, having appeared in 18 books since 1976, is here played by Liam Neeson, no stranger to the role of a calm, grieving, professional man of violence. He’s right for this kind of part because he’s so confident. We believe in his skill. We can see intelligence and thought in his eyes, the moral gravity of the situation resting on his broad shoulders. As he’s aged, Neeson has grown not restrained, but minimalist. He can suggest so much with a layer of gravel in his voice, a small shift of eyebrows, a tilt of the head. He’s still, solid, softly deploying his deep intonations until they calcify with deadly seriousness as he addresses bad men. He towers over others in a scene, and yet exudes a beguiling mixture of intimidating warmth, fierce intelligence and refreshing compassion equally sparingly deployed.

He’s reason enough to see the film. We watch as the gears turn in his head. He meets with the trafficker (Dan Stevens) and his brother (Boyd Holbrook), talks with witnesses, does research in the library (the film’s set in 1999), and casually scopes out crime scenes. Eventually, he’s paired with a sweet homeless teenager (Brian “Astro” Bradley) who loves Sam Spade and Phillip Marlowe as much as this film does. The kid likes the idea of being a private eye. The relationship he slowly develops with a reluctant Neeson isn’t cloying or sentimental, but positioned as a nice dim light in an otherwise grim experience.

Violence is brutal, sudden, and graphic in impact and implication, if not always shown. On occasion, Frank cuts to the depraved kidnapper (a pair of them, actually, played by David Harbour and Adam David Thompson) in flashbacks to prior murders and in present tense stalking of new targets. It’s unpleasant and unsettling, a grey mood of unrelenting menace. The ensemble is exclusively male, women left to be only objectified, wounded, imperiled, and chopped up into little pieces. We feel the weight of this danger, and as the stakes are raised it gets unrelentingly tense. Frank is certainly serious about the way he approaches this violence. It’s not a lark. It hurts. But the speaking parts are so fully ensconced in a masculine world, it’s more than a little disquieting to realize every female presence is only meat for the plot’s grinding.

But Neeson is so good, and the procedural mystery aspects so skillfully deployed, it manages to work despite this nagging imbalance. It’s compelling, the kind of tough, darkly effective detective movie we don’t often get these days. The film serves up all the usual red herrings and revelations you’d hope for. Frank’s script is terse and smartly plotted, playing fair by the various developments and actions. All the while, Neeson anchors the proceedings with his intense and welcome seriousness, as well as his dry humor and desire to keep his demons at bay. His humble struggle against the evil that men do is the lurid hook, but the throughline of his Alcoholics Anonymous meetings, threaded throughout, including a monologue intercut with the climax, makes it matter. He gives a complicated, soulful genre performance as much a throwback to detective stories of yore as the plotting. 

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