Someone is murdering the wives of New York drug dealers in the diabolical mystery A Walk Among the Tombstones, an appealingly low-key detective thriller featuring a top-of-his-game Liam Neeson as independent private detective Matthew Scudder, author Lawrence Block’s hardboiled crusader featured in 17 of his popular crime novels.
It’s been nearly three decades since Scudder appeared onscreen in Hal Ashby’s violet, underrated 1986 opus 8 Million Ways to Die (Jeff Bridges did the honors), and it’s good to have him back to solve this picture’s mystery, a tense race to find a pair of sadistic killers dispatching women for sport. Neeson, who has reinvented himself as an action hero in the last decade in films like Taken and Non-Stop with his weary cragginess and lanky authority, fits perfectly into the role of a recovering alcoholic trying to redeem himself on the beat.
Adapted and directed by Scott Frank, the picture opens with a traumatic past event that will play out once again before the credits roll, one that forced Scudder into early retirement and A.A. As a favor to a druggie friend (Boyd Holbrook), Scudder agrees to take the case of the kid’s wealthy brother (Dan Stevens), a cocaine trafficker whose wife was both kidnapped and then murdered—after the ransom was paid. The trail unravels more killings and a mysterious pair of creepy culprits targeting another kidnapping—that of an adolescent girl. To find them, Scudder must penetrate a lot of grimy underbellies, including those of a mysterious cemetery caretaker (Ólafur Darri Ólafsson) and other low-level scumbags. By the time the next target, a fourteen-year-old Russian ingenue, is revealed in chillingly perverse slo-mo, this grim and grimy movie, expertly set and shot in the outer boroughs, has its hooks in us.
Along the way, Scudder enlists the help of crafty street kid T.J. (Brian “Astro” Bradley), and there’s a subplot about Scudder’s mentorship the his young charge and the kid’s struggle with both homelessness and sickle-cell anemia that seem perfunctory, but does lead to a memorable scene where Neeson disarms the boy, by verbally and physically.
If the film slips at all it is during the welcomely undersold climax set in a cemetery, which clumsily incorporates freeze frames and a direct reading of the 12 Steps into the proceedings, effectively diffusing the tension. Still, the picture is respectably scaled and despite being marketed on Neeson’s commanding presence, worlds away from the mano-a-mano thrills of his recent, two-fisted forays.
Also, there is something a bit queasy about the mayhem and sexual violence employed here when the picture refuses to explain the pathology of its twisted killers. So they are ex-DEA targeting drug dealers by kidnapping, ransoming and then killing their beautiful wives – check. Why, then, we wonder, is the violence perpetrated against them so heinous? If the point is ransom and you’re going to kill the victim anyway, why not just shoot her and dump her in the Hudson River? Why torture her and cut off her breasts? Such a macabre M.O. is the stuff of a Thomas Harris-style serial killer, not garden-variety extortionists. None of this brutal psychosis is ever explained, nor is the pair’s twisted symbiosis, and that feels like a short-change given the unpleasantness onscreen.
Dark and gripping stuff, recommended.