A Walk Among the Tombstones
I have to wonder quite what writer-director Scott Frank saw in Lawrence Block’s pulp novel, such that the project kept returning to him over the course of the last fifteen years. Even more, that it attained quasi-mythical status owing to a failed attempt to get it filmed with Harrison Ford during that period. Because there’s absolutely nothing in this material, as translated to screen at least, to justify such veneration and compulsion. A Walk Among the Tombstones is a well-made but generic potboiler, one that harkens back to standard issue ’90s serial-killer fare (making the period in which it is set thus seem appropriate for all the wrong reasons), rather than setting its sights on the best and most creative the genre has to offer.
Block is nothing if not a prolific author; more than fifty novels, of which seventeen feature alcoholic unlicensed private detective Matthew Scudder (here played by Liam Neeson). Tombstones was the tenth to be published, back in 1992; the third, 1982’s Eight Million Ways to Die, was filmed in ’86 starring Jeff Bridges and directed by Hal Ashby (something of an ignominious final picture for the director, its best-known line is “The street light makes my pussy hair glow in the dark”). Perhaps the clichés of the genre work better within context of Block’s prose, but in Tombstones the readily recognisable fails to charm. Yet one gets the sense that the problem lies in the material, rather than Frank’s classical shooting style or the generally solid performances.
Frank has been involved in less-than-successful adaptations before (notably Heaven’s Prisoners from James Lee Burke’s Dave Robicheaux series of twenty to date, another take on the cop/thriller genre), but he’s best known for his acclaimed versions of two Elmore Leonard novels, Get Shorty and Out of Sight (he also did masterful work adapting Philip K Dick’s short story Minority Report for Spielberg). Most, even more so than Tombstones, he flew his detective fiction colours with a pilot (alas, it hasn’t been picked up) Hoke, based on Charles Willeford’s Hoke Moseley (marvellously portrayed on the big screen by Fred Ward in Miami Blues). So why is Tombstones only so-so? I think because it’s so routine, so undemanding, so formulaic. There are no surprises along the way, only the occasional moment or two where there is a glimmer it might evolve into something interesting. And as a number of voices have observed, not least one whom I saw the picture with, this kind of material has found a more natural home on the small screen of late – usually using the luxuriant pace afforded to instil considerably more intrigue and misdirection.
The Lookout, Frank’s debut, had an arresting distinctiveness and uncertainty about its destination. Both Sam Mendes and David Fincher originally considered it before Frank stepped up to the plate. As he tells it, Tombstones’ protracted development hell also slowly worked its spell on him. He reached the point where, when Neeson expressed interest, it pulled him back in. Most famously, the film had very nearly reached production back in 2002, with Ford starring and Joe Carnahan directing (DJ Caruso was also in the frame at the point of a 2011 false dawn). Ford reportedly baulked at the grim nature of the piece, and at the time it seemed like yet another foolish move from a star who couldn’t see the wood for the trees (he also demurred at the role Michael Douglas eventually took in Traffic). Given what is here, however, and given that Carnahan is one to revel in extremes rather than hold back, Ford could well have made the right choice. Coming out at that point, it would have had its work cut out not to seem like just another after-echo of The Silence of the Lambs; another mass audience serial killer cash-in the likes of which included everything from Kiss the Girls to The Bone Collector. Indeed, given how excessive Carnahan can be, it might have even earned an unenviable reputation as a precursor to the mid-2000s torture porn sub-genre.
Ironically, Frank has been accused of stooping to that very level, even though he shows nothing; which at very least evidences the power of words, intent and an old-fashioned cassette player. Unfortunately, such restraint doesn’t really help to raise the material. His serious mindedness is admirable, but it’s more than story deserves. This has also happened elsewhere recently. Even Fincher couldn’t make airport fiction The Girl with The Dragon Tattoo anything other than very well dressed airport fiction (the distinctive quality of Seven, displaying both narrative surprises and a moral and philosophical underpinning, seems to elude him even though he keeps going back to that genre well).
Scudder is introduced during his lank-haired, toothpick chewing, hard-drinking cop days; he’s on the scene when the robbery of a bar occurs and the consequences led him to put a cap on the bottle. A leap to 1999 and Scudder is clean and sober, taking jobs for “gifts” (as he is unlicensed). He is put in touch with drug dealer Kenny Kristo (Dan Stevens) whose wife has been kidnapped and murdered, even though Kristo paid the ransom. Scudder soon discovers this isn’t an isolated incident and, as is always the case with such depravity, he figures the perpetrators are going to strike again very soon.
The premise is a reasonably twisted one; killers preying on drug dealers’ nearest and dearest because they know the dealers won’t go to the police. Early on, there’s even an intimation of supernatural goings-on, of the sort hinted at in True Detective; curiously the scene that encapsulates this (one stupidly spoiled in the trailer) features Ólafur Darri Ólafsson, who appeared in one episode of the HBO serial. Scudder trails Ólafsson’s character, Loogan, to a rooftop where Loogan mutters dark foreboding comments about the evil Scudder faces and promptly steps off, falling to his death below. Alas, the ensuing gumshoe work is strictly pedestrian as leads rather fall in Scudder’s lap with little exertion on his part.
It doesn’t help matters that Frank chooses to make an array of meta-comments on the tropes of the genre; they serve not only to highlight the coasting quality of what we have here, but are delivered in a groan-inducing manner (there’s even a conversation in there about good names for detectives addressed to Mr Scudder!) Unless you’re Shane Black one of the very worst things you can do is introduce a kid as the tec’s sidekick (God, can you imagine how horrific that would have been with Ford?), unless you’re fully intent on sabotaging your movie. So here we get a young African American urchin (TJ, played by Brian Bradley) with brains, designs on being a PI, a smart mouth (fogey Scudder doesn’t understand him, how endearing!) and a life-threatening medical condition! Of course, the young rascal gets into all sorts of scrapes at the climax because he won’t listen to Uncle Liam. It’s as if we have suddenly detoured into a late-period Burt Reynolds movie.
While one can’t fault their performances, David Harbour (Ray) and Adam David Thompson’s (Albert) devilish duo are determinedly one-note, in a sub-Leopold and Loeb way. Their unreconstituted malignancy is delivered effectively, but it’s nothing very original. It is a lot of fun to see Scudder take control of the hostage negotiations, so used are they to dictating terms, but the plot beats are strictly derivative, right down to the showdown at the villains’ lair. Inevitably there’s a basement involved, and inevitably just as we think it’s all over someone leaves one of the tied up bad guys unattended so he can free himself when no one is looking.
Where Frank wins points is with his unexpectedly sympathetic drug dealers (he’s said everyone in this is human, but you couldn’t argue that of Ray and Albert, who are strictly boogeymen). Eric Nelsen and Downton Abbey’s Dan Stevens acquit themselves well, but it’s Sebastian Roche who really impresses; usually consigned to bad guy parts, and here playing a traditional bad guy, he is revealed as a sincere family man who just happens to sell illegal substances. Also, if they ever make The Gordon Ramsay Story, he’s a shoe-in.
Frank’s direction is pleasingly unfussy. Clean, uncomplicated camerawork accompanied by editing that is refreshingly neither frenzied nor confused. As a result, it’s all the more noticeable when the director injects a stylistic flourish; the freeze-frames during the graveyard shootout; the queasily show-stopping slow-motion when Ray and Albert sight their latest victim. Accompanied by Donovan’s Atlantis, there can be little doubt Frank took his cues from Fincher’s Zodiac, which also took an innocuous Donovan song (Hurdy Gurdy Man) and made it as sinister and unsettling as could be.
Frank handles his action with aplomb too. The opening shootout is enervatingly casual, such that the anti-gun speechifying comes across as suspect and a tad hypocritical. Several of Frank’s most enthralling scenes revolve around their use, including his hero, Dirty Harry-style, blowing the remaining perp away in cold blood; it’s never good to brandish guns, except when there’s a really nasty bastard out there pushing Liam too far. That said, there’s also a really nifty little moment where an unarmed Scudder (quite absurdly) punches out the lights of a DEA guy through a door window in (a moment also spoiled in the trailer).
The pre-millennium setting is tepid window-dressing. In addition to the unnecessarily intrusive talk of Y2K (it’s a lazy way to set the place), a sighting of the Twin Towers and much use of public phones, there’s a sense Frank is trying to inject a retro-70s vibe into the retro ’90s period dressing. It doesn’t really help because the ’90s is so faceless, even with a “grand” event like the Millennium Bug to define it.
A Walk Among the Tombstones is predictable, but it isn’t disagreeable as such. It’s a particular failing that it flaunts such a grim plot, yet has no discernible substance to justify itself; only the mechanics of its narrative devices. The fates of the victims don’t really matter because this is just another pulp thriller, when they should. A similar complaint could be levelled at the characters across the board. There’s no thematic depth or emotional weight, which you don’t need but it helps if there’s already a lack of sufficiently distracting twists and turns or intricate plotting. Otherwise, your picture ends up seeming rather run-of-the-mill. At least Frank doesn’t labour matters. He cut Ruth Wilson’s scenes as Scudder’s partner; it’s just a shame he didn’t cut TJ out as well.
Tombstones probably won’t do well enough to guarantee a sequel (even the relatively much more successful Jack Reacher was touch and go for a follow-up). I like a good detective thriller and, before I saw it, and with notional hype regarding a great unmade script, I would have been disappointed to think we wouldn’t see a series of Matt Scudders. But, if Tombstones is representative, I don’t think drawing a line in the sand here would be a bad thing. Except, of course, it means Neeson gets more time to make more Takens and similarly scintillating action fare.