We Failed This Film is a series about underrated films that simply didn’t receive any love upon initial release. For the 14th entry, we’re treading into the grim and murky waters of Scott Frank’s A Walk Among the Tombstones.
Warning: Minor Spoilers Ahead
How We Failed It
In 2014, a certain success story narrative was poised to take place. The severely undervalued writer/director Scott Frank, not having made a film in seven years, had finally released a follow-up that starred the world’s most bankable action star, Liam Neeson. It should have been a hit with a box office juggernaut star in the lead role, thus propelling Frank into a realm of creative freedom for whatever project he chose next. However, A Walk Among the Tombstones sadly didn’t work out that way, but it remains one of the highlights of 2014. Frank’s film is a thoughtful and incredibly grim work of cinema that uses Neeson’s action hero status in both innovative and introspective ways.
A Walk Among the Tombstones, adapted from one of the many novels by Lawrence Block, follows Matthew Scudder (Liam Neeson), a former cop and now an unlicensed private detective. As a business model, he does favors for people and they give him “gifts” in return. Scudder gets hired by drug trafficker Kenny (Dan Stevens), whose wife was kidnapped and held for ransom. Kenny paid the kidnappers, but they killed his wife anyway. And so, he wants Scudder to find the men responsible.
Unlike most films in this column, A Walk Among the Tombstones initially received a generous amount of critical love. Manohla Dargis began her review with “Nasty, brutal and unforgiving, A Walk Among the Tombstones is one of those rare contemporary cinematic offerings: intelligent pulp. It was written and directed by Scott Frank, a script writer whose credits include Get Shorty and Minority Report which means that he’s spent time transposing the likes of Elmore Leonard and Philip K. Dick to the screen. Mr. Frank is working with uglier, less pleasurable material here: a 1992 novel by Lawrence Block featuring his continuing character Matthew Scudder. It’s a story of good and evil in which men are as tough as nails and women little more than meat. The nail image is a metaphor; the meat less so.”
Wesley Morris was impressed: “With some movies, you feel like you’ve pre-seen them. The ads and posters and casting tell the same story you watched the previous weekend. So you go in and wait for a sign that this version will, in some way, be different. You look for evidence the director knows what he’s doing. A Walk Among the Tombstones gives you a sense, not too far in, that a sensibility is at work. The strings in the score play well with the xylophone, kicking up an evocative air of mystery. But the surest indication that the movie is operating in a rarefied zone of confidence involves a simple long shot of Liam Neeson trudging up a Fifth Avenue sidewalk in Sunset Park, Brooklyn. The camera takes long, patient drags on Neeson’s carriage and stature. I say it’s simple. But not every Neeson movie cares enough to do it.”
So, with the healthy critical support, why does A Walk Among the Tombstones feel so instantly forgotten? The box office was okay, but nowhere near the level of expectancy with Liam Neeson starring. With a budget of $28 million, the film would only gross $26 million domestically. Foreign markets would match that number, bringing the worldwide gross up to $53 million. It’s not the worst box office a film can do, but when Hollywood’s most bankable action star is leading your film, it is surprising that A Walk Among the Tombstones had such middling returns. All great reigns must eventually come to an end — even Neeson’s improbable run as Hollywood’s most bankable action star. Frank’s production arked the beginning of the end of that reign, with this year’s actioner Run All Night only grossing $71 million against a $50 million budget. Neeson’s once unbeatable effect on audiences just simply doesn’t have the pull it used to.
It should be noted that A Walk Among the Tombstones is far from an action film, though it does use Neeson’s stature as an action star to unique and intriguing ends (more on this later). The film is one of the most grimy and nasty films to come out recently, and that’s a compliment. When it came time to market A Walk Among the Tombstones, trailers leaned heavy on Neeson’s ability to fire guns and get into a scrap. It’s understandable, as if you’ve got an action star in your film, you want to attract that audience. This is imply not that film though, and therefore it didn’t attract that audience. A Walk Among the Tombstones should have been the crossover hit between action audiences and arthouse audiences for Liam Neeson, but it never panned out that way.
One other thing that didn’t help in the marketing was that a revelation about Scudder was put front and center in the trailers, one that was worthy of experiencing cold in the theater. The first scene of A Walk Among the Tombstones finds Scudder (in 1991) drunkenly engaging in a shootout with some muggers robbing the bar he’s drinking at. He manages to kill them each with relative ease, but he later reveals the last bullet takes a bad hop and hits an innocent bystander. It’s a catalyzing moment for the character that leads to his sobriety. Such a big and formative reveal would have been better served without prior knowledge before seeing the film.
Without the box office to match the critical support, A Walk Among the Tombstones seemed to immediately slip from memory from those who initially praised it. When the end of the year accolades came around, the film was nowhere to be found and seemed to have been quickly buried, despite plenty of critical love upon release. It begs the question, do we have to wait another seven years for Scott Frank to get his next film made?
Why It’s Great
The opening credits feature a stream of blurry close-up shots centering on a woman against a white backdrop, and considering the reveal of what’s actually going on, they soon become horrifying and ugly. It starts out somewhat romantic, with the woman looking exalted against the white backdrop. However, as the shots become wider, a new clarity arrives that makes it clear that this isn’t heaven, but hell. The sequence functions as a precursor for how Frank constructs the film, as A Walk Among the Tombstones is a slow, measured descent into darkness.
There are no traditional good guys in the film, just hard men that live by a code. A Walk Among the Tombstones is a movie where drug traffickers are the least threatening, and perhaps the most honest and principled. In an early scene, Scudder admits up front to being corrupt, lightly joking that he couldn’t have fed his family any other way. While Scudder is our protagonist, he’s one that walks a thin moral line through this underworld full of compromise. Frank and cinematographer Mihai Mălaimare, Jr. reconstruct New York City to match this grim reality, rendering an authentic vision of the city that feels unlike any other cinematic presentation of the Big Apple. Rather than New York City, the setting feels like an original cinematic creation in how unendingly grim and unforgiving the atmosphere is presented. It seems to constantly rain here, if not at least overcast. Night consistently outlasts the day, and even daylight is filled with dread through Mălaimare’s bleak lighting. There is only one scene involving any sort of police presence, adding to this heightened setting where the line between good and evil is thin, if even existent.
New York City serves as a literal graveyard in A Walk Among the Tombstones (as evidenced in the powerful final shot), one only fit for these compromised and hard men — a cinematic underworld only a person such as Scudder can navigate. The film highlights a horrifying cruelty that Frank never shies away from in his focused framing, his script going to incredibly dark places that hit the pit of your stomach. A Walk Among the Tombstones would be almost unbearable if it wasn’t so damn well made.
The whole cast is put to good use. Dan Stevens embodies a calm ferocity through each of his scenes as Kenny, insinuating an unwavering authority. Boyd Holbrook convincingly plays Peter, the tragic junkie black sheep brother of Kenny. Brian “Astro” Bradley has an infectious charisma as TJ, a streetwise orphan that becomes somewhat of a partner to Scudder in his investigation. One may keep waiting for TJ to become an annoying caricature of spunky youth, however Bradley keeps the character authentic and integral to the film. Adam David Thompson and David Harbour are absolutely terrifying as the villains, and what’s unique thing is that Frank makes it clear who the kidnappers are, but the film never loses its tension. If anything, the unique structure heightens the cat and mouse nature of the plot in Scudder’s hunt for them. Earlier in the film, a character describes the duo as “not even human,” with Thompson and Harbour living up to that reputation in their scenes. Donovan’s feel-good “Atlantis” soundtracks a horrifying moment of discovery for the pair, immediately changing how one may hear the song afterwards. Harbour often plays sleazebags with great skill, but in A Walk Among the Tombstones, he also proves capable of being downright terrifying and repulsive. Consider the detached manner in which he retorts to Scudder, “Nah, once they’re in the van, they’re just body parts.”
In an interesting side-note, the talented Ruth Wilson was originally cast as Scudder’s partner (and actually filmed scenes), but her role was ultimately cut out to make Scudder more of a loner. The change works creatively, and the loss of her character isn’t noticeable at all in the film. However, it would be interesting to one day see a cut including her work, as it was no doubt another worthy performance.
Scott Frank has long been one of Hollywood’s best-kept secrets, spending most of his time doing script work in films like Out Of Sight and Minority Report. His first directorial feature came in the equally underappreciated 2007 gem The Lookout. Adept in the mechanics of the noir thriller, Frank is at home in the grit and grime of the genre. As if to show his credentials, Frank provides references in a scene where Scudder reveals that he’s a private detective, and TJ compares him to Sam Spade and Philip Marlowe. Frank makes A Walk Among the Tombstones almost a period piece, setting it in the days just before Y2K and referencing the digital pandemonium of the time. “People are afraid of all the wrong things” remarks Harbour’s character as he reads a headline about the panic. This sort of dread coats each frame, with Frank and Milaimare Jr. drawing out their shots in long, focused takes to let the weight of this world seep in.
A Walk Among the Tombstones beholds one of the most understated and unique performances from action hero-era Liam Neeson. Frank knows how to use his lead’s status without losing sight that he’s an actor first (and an action star second). Sure, Neeson gets to threaten baddies over the phone like only he can, including some throwdowns and moments of one-liner badassery, but that’s only half of what makes Scudder such a unique character. Neeson gets to be both action hero and “actor” as Scudder. He wears a lifetime of grief and regret on his face that informs each decision Scudder makes. He’s extremely cynical, but even still, he’s not completely dead inside, and Neeson can communicate this distinction in the weariness he carries. Scudder seems to be someone born out of the grim world that Frank has created, with Neeson’s stature appearing weighed down by the unforgiving compromises of the film. That final look on Neeson’s face — is that relief, sorrow, or just more grief? With Neeson, he doesn’t give you an easy answer other than the possibility that it’s all three.
Dylan Moses Griffin has been a cinephile for as long as he can remember. His favorite film is Taxi Driver, and he reads the works of Roger Ebert like it’s scripture. If you want, he will talk to you for 30 minutes about the chronologically weird/amazing Fast and Furious franchise.