Brian Bradley (Astro)
Lawrence Block (based on; novel)
What to Expect
“This looks exactly like Taken’ except the only difference in incentive here is not the daughter but the money.” [sic]
These were some of the thoughts of good friend and co-review-writer Dania Syed on A Walk Among the Tombstones as she watched the trailer of the film.
Was she wrong? Not at all. Liam Neeson in a dark thriller about finding people has, on its own, become a template of sorts. Pierre Morel’s Taken is now so ingrained in pop-culture that anything that faintly resembles it and features its lead protagonist will – unfortunately – draw parallels. Heck, I did manage to take a few light potshots at the trailer when I watched it myself.
So what’s the difference here then? What’s the linchpin here? One of the very important things to know as far as differences are concerned is that while Taken was an original (?) concept, A Walk Among the Tombstones is an adaptation of the tenth of Lawrence Block’s (presumably) still running Matthew Scudder novels – this of the same name. Also, while the former was an action flick that ran at breakneck pace, this is a drama-thriller that intersects upon the same themes of kidnapping and the search for answers, but delves deeper into the slightly grimy aspects of it all.
Still, if you’re looking for more reason, here’s one apart from Neeson himself: the movie’s directed by popular writer Scott Frank (Get Shorty), who, prior to this, performed his directorial debut (alongside writing it) with The Lookout, yet another widely well-received crime film. Most of this definitely tallies up to a better bet at the movie ticket, doesn’t it?
Ah, but that, fortunately or unfortunately, can only be answered on watching the movie itself.
What’s it About?
Eight years after the past he seems to keep running away from, the now ex-police officer Matthew Scudder scrapes off his living working as an unofficial private detective. When he’s convinced to take on a case of kidnapping-and-death of a drug trafficker’s (Dan Stevens; The Guest) wife, he doesn’t know what he’s going into, and that his past might just soon catch up on him.
The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly
One of the winning points-of-focus is the direction here. The movie – unlike one would superficially expect of it – has all the trappings of a dramatic thriller, giving the audience a lot of throwbacks to film noir, whilst not imbibing the genre in itself completely. Scott Frank knows what he wants in his scene – right from the right amount of light and darkness to the raw art direction of the movie. There’s just so much astuteness in the atmospheric language of the film. Scudder might initially come across as a fairly contemporary pained-protagonist character at first, but the nuances that Neeson is made to pull off allow for some more understanding and a fairly better emotional depth into the character’s life. What’s fun to note is that the movie doesn’t shy away from being dark and grimy. There’s an eerie sense of discomfort throughout the film, and for quite a bunch of it you want to know what’s Scudder’s next move.
As far as characters go, it’s the antagonists that could have been the most interesting. For most of the initial portions, the audience is made to anticipate and fear their next move at the same time. It’s such a shame that their revelation (a touch too soon, perhaps) comes across as superficial, and – to be honest – uninteresting; and dips a lot of the tension in the film. While debatable, it does indeed end up being underwhelming to notice that the makers decided to show their cards sooner than it needed. Additionally, the fact that the movie acts itself out more like a tasteful drama sometimes ends up calling for indulgence in the dramatic portions of the script – possibly a little more than it intends or deserves itself to be. And while it doesn’t shy away from just being what it is, sometimes that might not be enough. ‘Cause there might always be déjà vu lurking around somewhere. And in quite a few places here, it definitely does.
Do I know much of the book? No, I do not. Therefore, looking at the film purely as its own entity, I’ve got to say that the inconsistency in pace and impact in quite a few places drop the feel of the film all the way down. There are a couple of conversations that may definitely be important for the plot, but are limply executed, and then there’s vice versa happening. Of course, there’s also these absolutely weird scenes which are much apparently pure experiments, but end up confusing you more than evoking the right emotion.
Additionally, there are a couple of subplots that make absolutely no sense in the film for a large portion. The relationship between the protagonist and a wannabe-detective loner kid feels a tad forced in many a place. The good news is it builds up to something memorable by its closing scene. How one wishes, however, that the rest of the plot thread would also boast of enough emotional significance to camouflage the unoriginality of it all.
Of course, the movie is beautifully shot. A lot of viewers would notice that there is a morbid obsession the makers have with slo-mo shots, but if you looked closely, they’d almost be well in context with the film. The movie has mostly gorgeous cinematography, having great control over lighting to allow drama to unfold. The edit is mostly linear, with a lot of flashback inserts in the middle of scenes. These scenes rely more on the quiet than on dramatized, reverberated sound to mark any theatrically painful past, which is what definitely caught my attention. The production design of the film is fairly raw and realistic, with art direction being raw, and for most part, quaint. The music is quiet – sinister sometimes, emotive sometimes. Works well thematically.
To Perform or Not to Perform
Luckily, the performers here are not bad at all; they oil the squeaky screenplay through well enough till the end of its journey. Liam Neeson is, as usual, a powerhouse performer who sails the ship through. While a lot of the non-readers may try and link his character to that in Taken, it’s thankfully far from it. Dan Stevens exhibits stellar emotivity, but his role doesn’t account for more than an expression or two. Brian “Astro” Bradley (Earth to Echo) as TJ gives an enjoyable performance, much unlike his character evolution and rapport with the protagonist, unfortunately. Eric Nelsen pitches in a fairly competent and sincere act here. Sebastian Roché in a short role isn’t half as bad. He just doesn’t end up registering much, however. David Harbour (End of Watch) and Adam David Thompson (Martha Marcy May Marlene) pitch in some of the most electrifyingly understated performances in the film. It’s quite sad, however, that the mystery in their characters is cut short and they’re not the kind of antagonists you’d fear anymore. Others are efficient.
Well, here’s the awesome news: the movie’s not half as bad as you’d probably expect – even want – it to be. If only not for an inconsistent graph of Frank’s own screenplay consisting of undercooked subplots and antagonists, besides some flimsy plot points, it could have been so much better as a film. That’s an ever so slightly saddening thought.
Here’s what you can do though: if you’re tight on your choice of film, and you want to watch a movie, then catch this film anyway. Chances are you might like it more than you’d want to.
Watch the trailer
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