Matt Scudder used to begin his days with two shots of whiskey and a cup of coffee. That character trait tips the audience off early about what kind of movie “A Walk Among The Tombstones” is not: a modern thriller, more obsessed with moving the plot along than interrogating human nature. Not that there’s anything particularly enlightening about “Tombstones,” writer/director Scott Frank’s stylish ode to hardboiled detective fiction, but the film’s charismatic lead and deliberate pacing at least provide a world—albeit an unfriendly one—to inhabit.
Based on Lawrence Block’s book of the same name, the films stars Liam Neeson as Scudder, a police officer turned unlicensed private investigator who regularly attends Alcoholics Anonymous meetings. That information alone is enough to see that the world-weary Scudder has a lot of emotional baggage, even if his secrets aren’t as interesting as the fact that he has them at all. At its core, “Tombstones” is a character study, visually enriched by noirish tropes, disguised as a conventional thriller.
Fortunately, its thrills are few and far between, providing space for the audience to follow Scudder, donned in a dashing corduroy overcoat, as he stalks the hard streets of New York City in search of a sadistic duo that is kidnapping and brutally murdering the wives of drug traffickers who are afraid to turn to the police for help.
Scudder, initially reluctant to take the case, gives in, not just to seek justice, but for the possibility of redemption, a desire that an effectively restrained Neeson rarely allows to come through. There’s an inherent selfishness in the act, reflecting the way Scudder accepts the world as it is, not as he thinks it should be.
But that world, as depicted by Frank—bloody, dank and very very dark—would be more terrifying if Scudder didn’t belong to it. Frank’s lens often trails the lonely detective from behind, as if he’s an implacable force protecting the audience from the evil that he perceives before it’s confronted.
Scudder’s process often is more entertaining than the end result, but that seems to be the point. Evil is never stamped out entirely; it’s merely kept at bay, and in this case, only long enough for Scudder to shut his eyes for a few seconds. Any longer than that would preclude a sequel.
A version of this review originally appeared in the Williamsport Sun-Gazette on Sept. 25, 2014.