Review: A Walk Among The Tombstones
Look at the posters for A Walk Among The Tombstones, and it appears to be one of the least impactful films of 2014. Why? Well, it's because the poster features Liam Neeson holding a gun, and we've seen that story about a hundred times before. The image calls to mind yet another two hours of Neeson kicking ridiculous amounts of ass. While that's usually fun, it does get old at some point. Alas, this is not that point, because despite its somewhat misleading promotions, A Walk Among The Tombstones is more of a slow-burning detective tale than an action flick. As Matt Singer at The Dissolve summarized nicely, this is "just good old-fashioned sleuthing." Go figure.
Basically, this film is the story of former NYPD cop Matt Scudder (Neeson), now a deeply brooding, recovering alcoholic who works as a sort of unofficial freelance detective. Scudder is called upon by a high volume drug dealer whose wife has been kidnapped and gruesomely murdered, despite the dealer having paid a hefty ransom. Scudder hesitates to take the case, but ultimately dives in due to the horrific nature of the crimes. Naturally, he winds up against a bigger case than he bargained for and as he gradually uncovers information on the killers and their previous, similar crimes, he and those around him grow ever closer to mortal danger.
All in all, it's a fairly run-of-the-mill outing despite a refreshingly calm performance from Neeson, a very strong supporting cast, and some pretty gut-wrenching crime. That being said, A Walk Among The Tombstones does a few things well enough to warrant mention in a review.
First of all, it grounds its characters in something resembling reality. Films like these can only land their heavy-handed punches if we feel something real in them, and in this one that's pretty much how it goes. No one (even Neeson) is immune to danger or betrayal, everyone has flaws, and everyone, at some point or other, is playing catch up while being in over his head.
Next, the film doesn't try to get too cute, and these days that's saying something. Sit through the first hour and you'll be rifling through scenarios in your head, trying to think of some ingenious twist or mind-blowing scheme that's just below the surface. This is the case with most films in the thriller, detective, or action genres, with the trouble being that more often than not the big surprise falls short—not clever enough for its own build-up. Well, A Walk Among The Tombstones skips the whole process. Yes, that means it's a little simple at times, but it's oddly enjoyable to sit through a tense crime film that thrills with atmosphere and creepiness rather than attempting the twist of the century.
But where the film really excels is in following through on its name with some genuinely creepy, back-to-basics graveyard action, and that's something scary movie fans will eat up. To be clear, most of the film doesn't actually take place in graveyards. However, when the camera ventures between the tombstones, we get the kind of creeping action that has been sapped from graveyard scenery by comedies, misfiring action films, and even video games in the past decade or so.
Indeed, try to think back on the last graveyard scene you saw and it's comedies that come to mind, for many. Films like Zoolander and Old School have had what amount to be mock funerals, turning daytime graveyard scenes into sources of laughter. Even the hit FXX comedy sitcom The League recently opened its sixth season with a funeral home and graveyard setting, complete with coffins flying open unexpectedly and all those cheeky shenanigans.
Gaming, too, has turned graveyards from chilling ghost story/horror settings into cartoonish backdrops. The Plants vs. Zombies online arcade and app phenomenon is the most significant example. The game uses grave plots and cheesy gravestone graphics as obstacles for cartoon zombies—but this is far from the only example. Any number of zombie games can be pointed to as additional instances in which graveyard scenes become somewhat-comical. In fact, the Betfair Casino is even hosting a "Full Moon Fortune" slot game that combines werewolf horror with a graveyard-themed backstory to enrich the atmosphere of the casino experience. Even the James Bond console game Everything Or Nothing ventured into a graveyard for one memorable level (though to be fair, that was a pretty creepy level).
The point is, while there will always be obscure ghost stories and small-scale films that do the setting justice, most mainstream action in films, on TV, in gaming has seen graveyards robbed of their creepiness in recent years. And A Walk Among The Tombstones sets this straight with some graveyard-heavy action that manages to be both original and terrifying. Between a mysterious graveyard groundskeeper wading through a pond raking up bags (of chopped-up body parts) during a grey fall day, and a late-night, pitch-black gunfight complete with shattering stones and ominous confusion, the tombstones in this film are used wonderfully. It's not a ghost story, and it only borders on horror with no supernatural forces at work. And yet, for what feels like the first time in a while in cinema, this film uses a graveyard to deliver genuine scares and thrills. Given the title, that's the main way in which the film delivers.