Film Review: A WALK AMONG THE TOMBSTONES

Directed by Scott Frank
Written by Lawrence Block (Novel), Scott Frank (Screenplay)
Starring: Liem Neeson, Dan Stevenss

A Walk Among The Tombstones, an adaption of Lawrence Block’s seventh Matthew Scudder book, is a film that works on several levels. It is a skilled adaptation of an author who is deserving of one of his books being turned into a good movie. It uses a classic cinematic skill to provide a true sense of dread and darkness. It is also a smart film that assumes its audience is the same.

The film starts with a well executed gunfight that defined Scudder.The plot begins much like the book. Scudder, an unlicensed P.I. and recovered alcoholic is approached by a fellow AA member to work for his bother. The brother, a drug trafficer, paid a ransom for his kidnapped wife and had her returned in pieces, wrapped like butcher meat. He wants Scudder to find the men responsible and bring them to him. Matt turns him down first, but takes the job, realizing the perpetrators are psychopaths, in it more for the hunt and torture, and they will do it again.

Most of the changes from page to screen come from Scott Frank’s compression of the tale to reach a managable running time. A sharp bit of craftsmanship comes from taking a part of the book when a witness makes the mistake of thinking there was third member during an abduction of an earlier victim. Scott decides not to make it a mistake and creates an unsettling yet utterly human character who Scudder gets three leads from in one scene that took him close to hundred pages to gather in the book. Frank also has to jettison two supporting characters, a hooker who survived the psychos and the lawyer who represents her. Both alone are worth picking up the novel.

Another character missing is Elaine, the call girl Scudder is at the start of the relationship with. She helps Matt in the investigation and his involvement with her marks a particular turning point in the series. It is in this book where Scudder makes the choice to truly connect with someone again or not.

Scott Frank realizes this and does something interesting. Instead of using the arc in the book, he tackles a small step in the stumbling soul search Scudder has in the entire series. Much of this is dealt with in his relationship with TJ, a street kid who acts as Matt’s Baker Street Irregular, portrayed without sentimentality by Brian “Astro” Bradley. He also uses a device employed by Block, where the shoot outside the bar becomes clearer as Scudder tells it in a more honest way. We’re seeing a man starting to realize his position in the dark world he has chosen.

Scudder fans will truly appreciate Liam Neeson’s performance. The actor allows his presence and natural gravitas do much of the work for him as he underplays with a worn and weary edge. He and Frank take a cue from the author, realizing the hero’s complexity’s and subtle contradictions, they simply let the character run and let the audience, like the reader, bring themselves to him. Early on we get an in to Scudder’s detached realism when he is asked if the corruption on NYPD made him quit the force and Neeson delivers the line. “Not really, I couldn’t have supported my family without it.” with perfect tone. At that point we know we have our Scudder.

What is a true revelation is Scott Frank’s direction. For over a couple decades, he has been known as on of Hollywood’s top screenwriters, responsible for two of the best Elmore Leonard adaptations (Get Shorty and Out Of Sight). Here he shows his skill with the camera and editing. He knows when to cut to a close up of Leeson’s worn but strong face, two shots of whiskey next a cup of coffee, or allowing a master shot play out for a whole scene to allow the actors to do their scene. He knows how to build tension, making me cringe at things I knew were coming from having read the book. The private detective film has always been a balance of suspense film and character study and Frank understands this.

I do feel the need to warn people this is not a film for the light hearted. The opening credits, which challenge David Fincher’s for unsettling, let us in on this from the beginning. Like Block’s book, it pull’s no punches, exploring the truly mean streets its detective walks down. It is an adult film that treats us like adults. That rarity alone, makes it a film worth supporting.

Scott Montgomery