September 18, 2014
Few movies have the ability to hold my attention, which is why I love going to the theater. The urge to text or just check that one little thing is stopped by the fact that when the lights go down, all eyes go forward. Sadly, moviegoers this summer were treated to lackluster tent poles: Godzilla under-delivered for most on the monster action, The Amazing Spider-Man 2 was mostly ho-hum, and A Million Ways to Die in the West had such great comedic potential but instead became that 1 million and one. It is so rare that movies just reach out, grab you, and won’t let you go until the lights go up. If you’ve been missing that kind of cinematic experience, take comfort – Liam Neeson is here to save cinema.
Opening this Friday, September 19th, A Walk Among The Tombstones is a different version of a story we’ve seen before. Adapted by writer/director Scott Frank (The Wolverine/The Lookout) from the 1992 novel of the same name by Lawrence Block, the movie stars Neeson as Matt Scudder, a former NYPD detective contracted to track down the individuals responsible for kidnapping and murdering the wife of Kenny Kristo, played by Downtown Abbey’s Dan Stevens. The more Scudder looks, the more he follows the clues, the more danger he realizes he’s in.
What I found most interesting about this character is that Scudder is a Grey Hat. Yes, we learn that he was a cop, but he wasn’t a good guy. By the time we meet him in 1999, he’s washed out, going to frequent AA meetings, and shuns technology. When he was on the force, he drank too much, had no problem resorting to violence, and was not bothered by corruption within the police force. Scudder even jokes to Kristo that “corruption took care of my family.” What makes him a Grey Hat, and what I found most fascinating about this character, is that despite all the things we know at the start, despite what we expect from Neeson as an actor, by the time we meet Scudder in 1999, he’d rather talk than fight, he’d rather think than act, and he will respond violently if violence is called for, but only then. Combine this with Frank’s phenomenal directorial work and you have a film that becomes the kind of thriller that makes you realize you’ve been holding your breath.
Throughout the film, director Scott Frank only shows us what we need to see. Primarily, Frank uses medium and close-up shots to establish Scudder’s viewpoint. Maintaining solely on Scudder’s domain of personal space makes the audience’s viewpoint small and focused to the point of claustrophobia. Rarely do we get to see more than a few feet around Scudder, which keeps the audience tight, even in the quieter moments. By controlling the audience’s perception, Frank causes the audience to subconsciously try to see around corners, to try and determine where the danger is going to come from. This technique is used to great effect when it comes to our villains. In the beginning, we only see fingers, then hands, and a mouth. Later, as we watch the two killers track their newest prey in the night, though dark, their faces are deliberately blurred. I suspect that is so we remain uncomfortable, to add to the continued rising tension as Scudder slowly moves clue by clue to track them down. The more Scudder discovers, the more we get to see. What Scudder finds, however, is less diabolical fury of a standard villain and more methodical mayhem of maniacs seeking money through pain.
There is little more I can say without spoiling this movie and your experience. So much of what makes it work is the way the writing strains against storytelling tropes and audience expectations to create a surprising experience. Whatever you do, see this in the theaters. Like Scudder, who doesn’t understand Yahoo! Search and is waiting for Y2K to hit, shun technology; no calls, no texts, no social media, no talking. In truth, once this movie gets going, it’s not going to let you go no matter how hard you struggle. Luckily, the story ends for you when the lights come up. For Scudder, this is just another day and I, for one, am curious what tomorrow brings. Available in theaters nationwide starting Friday, September 19th.
Final Score: 4 out of 5