A Walk Among the Tombstones, based on one of Lawrence Block’s novels about private detective Matthew Scudder, looks like it would have been a fantastic book.
The film stars Liam Neeson as the title character. An alcoholic eight years sober, Scudder works as an unlicensed private detective after accidentally killing a 7-year-old in an off-duty shootout while working as a cop. He takes the case of Kenny Kristo (Dan Stevens), a drug dealer whose wife has been kidnapped and gruesomely murdered. Scudder uncovers a pair of vicious serial killers who the cops won’t touch. Along the way, he befriends TJ (Brian Bradley), a homeless black kid with sickle-cell anemia, and attends a lot of Alcoholics Anonymous meetings.
The saying goes that the book is always better than the movie, but A Walk Among the Tombstones goes beyond that. The story was made for novelization. There are a ton of characters with important roles. There are high-arcing periodic and existential themes, the kind that you hear about in books but not in movies often because they’re relatively easy to capture with words but extremely difficult to shoot, so difficult that filmmakers often have to sacrifice some form of marketability to really do it right. There’s a negotiation later in the film in which Scudder establishes that a kidnapped girl is still alive by having the kidnapper relay information that she would have that is clever but not dramatic — it’s exactly the kind of thing that would play well in a book, but isn’t at all cinematic.
It’s something that can happen in novel adaptations when filmmakers try to be too faithful to the source material, but it’s very odd to see in this film because it isn’t very faithful to the individual novel at all. A Walk Among the Tombstones is the 10th book featuring Scudder, but this adaptation takes several pieces from other books in the series, including Scudder’s accident and TJ’s introduction, which took place in the previous book. A sub-plot of the book is Scudder struggling with his significant other’s past as a prostitute, but in the film she is cut out entirely.
The film is very reminiscent, though not nearly as good as, 2007’s No Country for Old Men, which had a lot of the same theming problems but solved it by having not nearly as many important characters.
This is to say writer/director Scott Frank did try to address the issue that arose, but did it in such a way that it arose again after his addressing of it. He was obviously trying to make a more comprehensive movie about Scudder, but he didn’t do anything to really capture what, if anything, makes him a notable literary character.
It’s not a good way to stand out, but standing out at all is hard for a crime drama with no real hook other than an A-list actor. It’s difficult to describe, but Eric Snider with GeekNation.com said it best when he called it pulp treated like literature. The plot has been done and done and done again, but there’s an atmosphere about this movie that makes it one of the better ones of its kind aesthetically. The drug dealer angle is a nice if downplayed twist.
It’s probably a good movie for older audiences, which makes sense given its tie to a character that was originally penned in 1976, but works well enough for other viewers. The shootout scenes are few, but extremely satisfying, and Swann and Nouela’s “Black Hole Sun” cover at the end credits is frankly worth the price of admission itself. The movie just needed to be streamlined better.
Joshua Knopp is a formerly professional film critic, licensed massage therapist, journalism and film student at the University of North Texas and news editor for the NT Daily. Seriously, SMU is the worst. For questions, rebuttals and further guidance about cinema, you can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org. At this point, I’d like to remind you that you shouldn’t actually go to movies and form your own opinions. That’s what I’m here for.