I'm not trying to be a hero! I'M FIGHTING THE DRAGON!!

A Walk Among the Tombstones

tn_tombstonesSometimes a man just has to walk among the tombstones, you know? Stroll within the grave markers. Saunter betwixt the memorials. Seagal did it in PISTOL WHIPPED and now my man Liam Neeson (THE DEAD POOL) is taking a turn. He’s doing it in a mystery thriller based on book #10 in a series by Lawrence Block. The movie version is written and directed by Scott Frank, the guy that wrote OUT OF SIGHT, so it’s more about capturing that crime novel feel than being another Neeson vehicle like UNKNOWN or NON-STOP. That said, he is allowed to be awesome, and there are some scuffles.

Admittedly the opening scene is better than anything else in the movie. It’s a flashback to 1991, but has a ’70s feel. Stringy-haired, racial-slur-using asshole police detective Matthew Scudder (Neeson) walks into an empty bar where cops get free drinks. And this is how you know he sucks: the bartender greets him by name, and he doesn’t even say hi or look at him. He just knocks on the counter and then sits down at a booth with his back to him. Fuck you, man! I guarantee you this prick doesn’t tip either.

But when we see what Scudder’s usual is, it says something. The bartender brings him two shots and a mug of coffee. He downs the first shot and starts sipping the coffee as he reads his newspaper. And I gotta be honest, that seems like a pretty appealing morning routine, in some ways.

Then some guys come in, argue with the bartender and shoot him, so groggy-ass Scudder stumbles out after them, chases them down and shoots the shit out of them. It’s been a while since I’ve seen an opening as badass as Scudder dangling his gun and sloppily strutting away from one of the bodies as the title comes up. But instead of cocky wah wahs and horns we get eerie strings, like we should be scared of what he just did, not impressed.

mp_tombstonesThe events of this prologue are mentioned a few times later in the movie, and there is some mystery around them that I’m sure would be compelling if I hadn’t seen the god damn trailer, which matter-of-factly opens with the information that is deliberately withheld until real late in the movie. Thanks alot fellas. (And for that other thing you gave away that happens in that other part that would’ve been pretty shocking I bet if I wasn’t waiting for it.)

The Scudder of the main story is a repudiation of the cool, hard boiled Scudder of the prologue. Now he’s sober, better groomed and I’m gonna go ahead and optimistically assume less racist. Now when we see him at a diner he eats actual food (even a green salad if I’m not mistaken!), talks to the staff and knows their names. He’s no longer a cop – by choice – he works as an unlicensed detective who “does favors” for people. He’s lonely and sad but safer to have on the streets. Unless he sees you following him and you’re not a kid, in which case he’s gonna punch you in the nose like you deserve, dumbass. What did you think he was gonna do.

I like how important his sobriety is to the story. The case is brought to him by Howie (Eric Nelsen) Peter (Boyd Holbrook), a recovering junkie kid he knows from A.A. Howie brings him to his brother Kenny (Dan Stevens from THE GUEST, but looking like Wes Bentley in this one instead of like Josh Lucas), whose wife was kidnapped by some guys in a van and then murdered even after a ransom was paid. Scudder figures out that he’s in the drug trade because Howie waits outside – to be true to A.A. he can’t associate with people like his own brother.

It’s a good, classical detective story. He figures out more than he’s being told, he doesn’t want to work with a drug trafficker so he says no, but thinking about the victims pulls him in. I like the way Scott cuts in shots of what happened as Scudder talks to witnesses or makes deductions. Not Avid farts, but quick compared to the deliberate pacing of the rest, an illustration of Scudder’s detective brain working, finding the puzzle pieces he’ll have to put together.

All the while, Scudder does not backslide. He keeps going to meetings throughout the movie, and a recital of the 12 steps is played over a climactic scene like it’s some badass Sun Tzu quotes or something.

Like so many of the greats, Scudder is not up on the new technology. He doesn’t want a cell phone (don’t worry, he gets to talk tough to bad guys over land lines) and still researches on microfiche. So he needs a savvy young sidekick, right? It’s a corny convention but I like T.J. (Brian “Astro” Bradley, EARTH TO ECHO), the homeless, detective-novel-loving kid he meets in the computer lab at the library. He’s one of those kids who the adult meets and then sort of doesn’t want him around but he follows him around and is pushy enough that eventually he forces himself into a sidekick role. He helps Scudder, but he’s not a genius computer hacker or something, he’s just a regular kid with a basic knowledge of web browsing.

I like their friendship. Scudder is an older guy that fucked up everything with his peer group, so now most of the people he talks to are troubled young people rejected by society. He can related and might be able to help, so he’s nice to them, though not always friendly.

By the way, this is not that important, but did anybody else wonder what the deal was when the librarian told T.J. he made a mess in the restroom? Does this mean he wiped shit all over the place? Or left needles and puddles of blood laying around? It must’ve been pretty extreme for her to bring it up. Based on that one comment shouldn’t Scudder be more concerned about having this kid around?

Morbid serial killer shit is not my favorite type of entertainment, but it definitely can work, and this is a good example of that. Even though I know this is fiction I think being a period piece subconsciously makes it seem like true crime to me, as if they’re setting it in 1999 because that’s when this happened. Taking place in the past dredges up those memories of uneasy times gone by, like before they caught The Green River Killer, Jeffrey Dahmer, Ted Bundy. Now that I think about it that’s kind of a thing, isn’t it? Anti-nostalgia. Movies like ZODIAC and SUMMER OF SAM that instead of making you treasure the good old days try to flip them over and show you all the creepy bugs crawling around underneath.

These kidnappers are sick weirdos, not easy to comprehend, good villains for a mystery because you’re anxious to figure them out but won’t be given the comfort of some logical explanation for it all.

There’s a moment that really creeped me out, one that uses the cinematic language in a fucked up way, but it acts so casual about it it almost gets away with seeming like an accident. In the scene, the two messed up fuckers are casing a potential victim when suddenly they see her young daughter. They stop and watch her cross in front of their van as the soundtrack plays “Atlantis” by Donovan. Other reviews that have mentioned this seem distracted by the fact that the song was used in GOODFELLAS. Fine, but what’s terrifying about it is how it employs the movie shorthand for love at first sight – music swells over slow motion shot of person passing, looking the other direction – on this little girl that they would like to torture and then cut into pieces.

Jesus Scudder, you better find these guys.

In substance I don’t believe A WALK AMONG THE TOMBSTONES is that much different from a ’90s serial killer thriller that might star Ashley Judd or Morgan Freeman. But it distinguishes itself with taste. It’s willing to be slow and quiet, it takes its sweet time between edits, it communicates more visually than through jibber jabber, the score by rookie composer Carlos Rafael Rivera is simple and creepy instead of the usual manipulative bombast.

And man, what a treasure we have in Neeson(s). A great actor with an excellent body of work (fucking SCHINDLER’S LIST!) and even a peppering of genre credits (he’s god damn DARKMAN!) now suddenly and unexpectedly reborn as the late-period-Bronson of the 2000s. I hope he continues with an endless series of TAKENs and NON-STOPs but gets to throw us a THE GREY or a TOMBSTONES every now and again. The ones that are tough as nails (maybe moreso than his straight up action thrillers) but more emotional, less dumb. They offer him more acting challenges to keep him interested, but don’t skimp on parts where he gets to stand unarmed talking fearlessly to a guy pointing a weapon at him.

Also, let’s get Scott Frank directing more, if he wants. I’m sure on video this will do better than THE LOOKOUT did. And at least we get to see it, unlike the Hoke Moseley pilot he shot this year but didn’t get picked up.

Moviegoers, get ready to rock among the tombstones! Scudder is no dudder! –outlawvern.com

VERN has been reviewing movies since 1999 and is the author of the books SEAGALOGY: A STUDY OF THE ASS-KICKING FILMS OF STEVEN SEAGAL, YIPPEE KI-YAY MOVIEGOER!: WRITINGS ON BRUCE WILLIS, BADASS CINEMA AND OTHER IMPORTANT TOPICS and NIKETOWN: A NOVEL. His horror-action novel WORM ON A HOOK will arrive later this year.
This entry was posted on Thursday, September 25th, 2014 at 12:35 pm and is filed under Mystery, Reviews. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.

48 Responses to “A Walk Among the Tombstones”

  1. The sounds design on this movie is something else. And it’s at its best during the silent moments. You feel like you’re there with Matt poring over files late at night in the library or enjoying dinner in the diner. And the location work was excellent too and really complemented it. Frank has real chops as a director, way more so here than The Lookout, which is a great movie but mainly through the performances and screenplay. And you’re absolutely right about Neeson(s), as a fellow Irishman it’s heartening to see him make the choices he does.

  2. I enjoyed this one, though a part of me wishes it had been ten episodes on AMC or FX rather than a two hour film.

    ****Spoilers Below****

    I was wondering if it was supposed to be a meta joke that in the original novel TJ doesn’t get into the bad guys vehicle following the standoff in the cemetery, and even says that if this was a movie he would’ve hidden in the vehicle and tried to call Scudder when they got to the hideout, but figured since this was real life it would never have worked… and then in the movie version he does hide in the van.

  3. This was such a cool surprise to me. On the Neeson Genre Flick continuum it’s not quite THE GREY but I thought it was a step above NON-STOP (which is plenty enjoyable itself). This paragraph sums it up really well:

    In substance I don’t believe A WALK AMONG THE TOMBSTONES is that much different from a ’90s serial killer thriller that might star Ashley Judd or Morgan Freeman. But it distinguishes itself with taste. It’s willing to be slow and quiet, it takes its sweet time between edits, it communicates more visually than through jibber jabber, the score by rookie composer Carlos Rafael Rivera is simple and creepy instead of the usual manipulative bombast.

    It’s not anything you haven’t seen before – but it’s done really well and it’s fairly intelligent and patient, and all the little details feel ‘right.’

    They’ve got something appealing with this Scudder character. He’s that world weary loner type, but his application of violence is sparing and he’s mercifully not a drunken wreck – the AA angle and the low-key way he befriends T.J. are really cool touches. I dug his dynamic with T.J., they mostly tried to keep it unsentimental and failed towards the end, but I thought the movie kinda earned it. T.J. himself is a cool character, colorful but generally believable, and him liking Daunte Culpepper as a P.I. name was a great touch. The spoiler-packed advertising made me pessimistically expect that Scudder was gonna be a Creasy from MAN ON FIRE type, but the film smartly understands that if you wallow in misery the whole time then it’s going to be less impactful when we hang out with the serial killers – it uses a light touch at just the right moments, and lets Scudder come off as a guy who has a coarseness to his demeanor but cares about people so the movie feels like it has a soul.

    The treatment of the serial killers kinda took this to the next level for me. Serial killers are so tricky because you don’t want them to be boring, but when you’re injecting menace or weirdness it’s so easy to cross the line into goofy. This played it really well. The scenes with their victims feel realistic and thus genuinely upsetting, but it doesn’t cross the line into anything overly lurid and it knows not to go the Alex Cross route with the killers – their being ordinary guys is what make them scary. Supervillain Serial killers can be entertaining but they’re not actually scary. The guy who played Ray was kind of this combination of Michael C. Hall and Michael Kelly that I found really compelling and legitimately scary, and stuff like the Donovan moment was I thought a really inspired twist on a cinematic convention.

    You know what this gave me the vibe of a little bit? JACK REACHER. Reacher is a less serious movie and is constantly straddling the line between taking its character seriously but also finding it funny how over the top he is, but the filmmaking approaches of both films are very patient and storytelling oriented in a way that stands out in mainstream films these days, and they both have that thing where even if you don’t know the character you can tell it’s based off a novel in a series because it has that vibe of us watching just one of the installments in Scudder/Reacher’s crazy life. I would definitely love to see some further cinematic adventures of Scudder.

  4. Atlantis? Sounds to me like they wanted to use HURDY GURDY MAN first, then realized that using this song in a creepy context is kind of a cliche, but since they had already paid for a Donovan song, they just used this one.

  5. What I thought was so great about this movie was how Frank absolutely nailed it in terms of making it feel like one these books. I don’t mean Matt Scudder books in particular, because I’ve never read any of them. I just mean these types of novels. The tone, the pacing, the characterizations, the way the story unfolds and how Scudder goes about investigating it, everything was perfect. I’m sure a bunch of stuff had to be left out or manipulated in taking it from book to movie, but he got it just right.

    I saw this movie the day before I saw THE GUEST and I had no idea the same guy played the guest and the drug trafficker husband until I read your review for THE GUEST. Even then it didn’t trip for me when you said you had just seen him playing a douche drug trafficker. I had to look him up in IMDB to realize it. And I’m really good at recognizing people. Even if I don’t know where I know him from, I know I know him. I can’t believe that was the same guy. That just makes me more impressed with his acting ability, because there really wasn’t that much of a difference between the two characters physically, so it must have been the way he played them.

  6. Re the librarian and the bathroom, I didn’t think it had to be something extreme. I got the feeling that the librarian was familiar with the homeless kid, regarded him as loitering in her domain, and used a minor infraction to eject him. Bill Bratton’s “broken windows” policy, librarian-style. Maybe T.J. left a bunch of dirty towels on the counter; for a street kid, he seemed pretty well-scrubbed.

    One for the group: Did the prominent Y2K references add up to anything? Period detail and, perhaps, an example of how “people are always scared of the wrong things”. Still, considering that the headline/cab ad/graffiti/whatever else had to be specially designed or recreated for the movie, and that Frank keeps emphasizing them in the frame, the reason for such heavy, specific bits stayed weirdly vague.

  7. I thought the Y2K stuff was more about keeping the story in perspective where technology is concerned. It makes more sense for Scudder to not know how to use the internet and doesn’t like cell phones 14 years ago than it would today. Same for the sickos meeting up in a floating video store, instead of finding their stuff online. Why they’re using payphones instead of burner cell phones. Why they don’t have some hacker kid to trace their calls and put trackers in the money. Stuff like that.

  8. Great review, Vern. This film is now high on my list.

    I found it interesting that the character Neeson plays in this film, Matt Scudder, is the same character that Jeff Bridges’ played in “8 Million Ways To Die.” A film I really like.

  9. Saw it today and I really liked it. From the trailers I didn’t expect the number of subtle humorous touches it had, like Matt constantly needing phrases explained to him (T.J.’s slang, the Doctor explaining “Sickler”), telling the caretaker “everything gave you away. You’re a weirdo.” and missing his first chance to punch the guy through the window so having to call him back into position. The killers are a great creepy pair with their yin and yang personalities, especially with Ray being so affable, as if Phil from MODERN FAMILY had suddenly become a serial killer.

    I feel the same way about the “Atlantis” scene too, Vern. Especially with them putting us in the killer’s POV for it. Though I was also distracted not because the song was used in GOODFELLAS, but an episode of FUTURAMA.

    The Y2K references caused a bit of a continuity thing with me. Matt says that it’s going to happen “six months from now”, but the movie clearly isn’t taking place during summer.

  10. the opening scene was by far the best part of the movie, but it was so fucking good, i haven’t been able to stop thinking about it all week. The rest of the film was pretty good, too, but jesus, that long descent down the stairs, so fucking pleased with himself, all set to ominous music, titles artfully appearing and dissolving at the top of the frame. Fucking incredible. I’m really glad you brought up how Neesons is the new Charles Bronson. I have been pushing that theory on coworkers and nobody is taking me seriously, but its true! Dude is pumping out quality genre shit at a fast clip these days, and thank god for that.

  11. Stu – I decided not to quote it in the review because I didn’t want to give it away, but the “weirdo” line cracks me up too. You don’t expect to hear a detective say that so bluntly, and to hear it in Neeson’s voice is the best.

  12. To me, the Y2K stuff was there to illustrate the movie’s stated thesis: People are afraid of all the wrong things. In 1999, everybody was scared of this computer shutdown that never happened, when less than two years down the pike, some real scary shit was about to fuck up the whole world. This idea is brought home in the last shot of the movie, which subtly includes a soon-to-be defunct part of the New York skyline. Normally i wouldn’t appreciate such allegorical fuckery but I think the time period fits the story.

    I liked this movie. I’m a big fan of the Scudder series and Block in general. What an old master that guy is. He can do funny, sad, satirical, tragic, hard boiled, whatever. And all without ever showing off. He makes it look easy, which we all know is the hardest thing to do. I particularly recommend 8 MILLION WAYS TO DIE and WHEN THE SACRED GIN MILL CLOSES, the ones that most directly deal with Scudder’s alcoholism.

    They actually shot a big chunk of the film in my neighborhood. It was nice to see a real Brooklyn movie that shows all the boring parts most movies can’t be bothered with. Every location was dead on. I felt like I’d walked past all of them at one point or another.

    Another part that used the language of film against us was the title sequence, which looks like some soft focus love scene/soap commercial and turns out to be a rape.

    I hope this becomes a series for Neeson. I could see him still doing them long after he gets too old for his more strenuous action roles.

  13. That title sequence was beautiful, which also made it terrifying as fuck. Same with the scene that has already been mentioned where they see the girl for the first time. The whole concept of the violence they were committing was done with such a deft hand. It was never gratuitous, which made it even scarier, in my opinion. Seeing the little things like the weapons in the bloody water in the sink and that little glimpse we got of whatever fucked up video shop that was, where it was never revealed exactly what videos they were getting, made your imagination fill in the blanks, and as a woman it made the horror of it especially visceral.

  14. serial killers are not really a thing anymore, are they? these days we have the mass shooters who do it all in one go

  15. Well, at least in real life, serial killers have never been “a thing”. It may seem like there was a time when you went to bed every night, expecting to wake up murdered by some crazy madman the next morning and the weird popculture fixation on those crazy fuckers (both fictional and real) doesn’t help either, but if you look back, serial killers were always the exception, not the norm.

    Or maybe they just became smarter and more difficult to catch. Who knows?

  16. The mass shooters usually have a chip on their shoulder. For them, it seems more about purging. Lashing out at society for whatever grievances they harbor. Add to the cauldron mental instability and psychotic delusions, and you got another tragedy in your neighborhood.

  17. Huh, I was pretty disappointed with this one.

    Neeson is great, but I thought the movie was really confused tonally, and mostly pretty forgettable and boring. I kept sitting there and wishing I was watching Fincher’s Girl With the Dragon Tattoo instead.
    Like, it’s this super pulpy detective story, so none of the characters feel very realistic or interesting, which would be OK if it was then a really cool elaborate mystery, but it’s not, it’s extremely straightforward and basic.

    It doesn’t work as a Neeson kicks ass movie, because it doesn’t really let him do that outside of a few brief moments, it doesn’t work as a compelling mystery, and it doesn’t work as a Seven-style intense psychological thriller. Individual scenes are fine, and shot well, but it really doesn’t add up to much in my opinion, and is one of Neeson’s weaker post-Taken movies (above Taken 2, below Unknown).

  18. CJ – I just can’t imagine how that could be true when in the 70’s you had a disproportionate number of serial killers, Ted Bundy, John Wayne Gacy, Dahmer, Son of Sam etc, you just don’t hear about that kind of stuff today

    either it’s gone away or the media intentionally stopped talking about it in order to dissuade it (kinda like what they say should be done about mass shooters today), for whatever reason it seems to me that every once in a while in American culture there are these trends of violence that start, first it was serial killers and now it’s mass shooters

  19. I avoided this because the trailers made it seem like the further adventures of John Taken. But based off the review and comments it sounds more interesting than it actually looked.

  20. Just saw it. I’m conflicted.

    Firstly, from Vern’s review (which I deliberately didn’t read until now to avoid spoilers): “The movie version is written and directed by Scott Frank, the guy that wrote OUT OF SIGHT”

    See that could’ve put me right off from the get-go. “Out of Sight” is one of those “Paul’s Village” movies where I don’t know a single person in real life who actually likes it, but as soon as I come onto outlawvern.com, everybody seems to love it. Happily, “A Walk Among the Tombstones” shares almost nothing in common with it in terms of tone, which is my main complaint about “Out of Sight”. It looks and feels totally different – a lot grittier, with a lot more “realism”. This is both a good and a bad thing.

    So here’s the good. Neeson, in this as well as the more fantastical “Non-Stop” from earlier this year and “The Grey” from a couple of years ago, is once again proving himself a charismatic and reliable lead, able to take his “persona” and mould it to fit the essence of whatever character he’s playing. I thought that the killers were good antagonists, personable enough without too much screentime, and convincing threats. Dan Stevens is once again very good as the drug dealer (by the way Vern, his brother’s name was Peter, not Howie).

    As a detective story – albeit one without any “whodunnit” element, there are twists but they’re mostly fairly obvious – this works well. The dialogue and writing is mostly strong, there are no obvious howlers or plot-holes that detract from the immersion, and there are a few particularly great scenes (one between the two killers, and another that’s been mentioned above that uses a certain piece of music and some brilliantly-timed slow-motion to create a chilling effect).

    So with all these pluses… why am I so ambivalent about this movie?

    Well there are a couple of reasons. Firstly, there’s the character of TJ. Secondly, the religious imagery. Thirdly, the misogyny. Let’s put a huge SPOILER WARNING for the rest of what I’m going to write here.

    Let’s start with TJ. I think it’s widely accepted now that the character of Friday in “Robinson Crusoe” came from a deeply racist place. Modern sensitivities being what they are, you can’t just have a middle-aged white guy “adopt” a younger black man to be his servant in movie nowadays. Of course you can still get the same racial dynamic if you’re willing to make a few changes – for example, have your black character be educated and book-smart, have him give himself a new name based on the white guy’s occupation rather than have the white guy name him, and have the white guy be an unwilling “master” rather than a willing one. See, totally different! Nothing racist here at all! Honest!

    Yeah… in case my sarcasm isn’t obvious enough, I’m not buying this. TJ is the modern enlightened version of the Magic Negro. He still serves exactly the same function to the story, but now instead of being a poor Southern boy, he’s a streetwise young black man who spends his time in libraries. He also knows a smattering of German (he knows the translation of a woman’s name before looking it up), has read books by Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett, and has ambitions to be a detective. (At this point I’d make note of how incredibly fortunate it is for Neeson’s character to, completely by chance, meet and adopt the one homeless black guy in the city who knows German and wants to be a detective… and how utterly contrived this comes across as.)

    I also found TJ’s casual “foster home” comment to be revealing. I don’t know how bad your foster system is over there, Americans, but let’s get this straight: Neeson’s character is absolutely not doing the right thing by TJ. This kid should be in a foster home. I can understand him not wanting to give up the freedom that he knows for a home with parents he hasn’t even met yet, but Neeson? He should absolutely know that that’s the right thing to do. At the very least there shouldn’t be an implicit assumption that a life on the street, with drug dealers and armed thugs, is better than a foster home. What’s more, at the end of the movie, when everything’s wrapped up, he should face some pretty harsh interrogation from the police about why on earth he would ever let an underage kid follow him around when he’s tracking a pair of serial killers, let alone why said kid would decide to get into the back of their van without anybody noticing.

    Secondly, the religious imagery.

    Ok, this pervades the film, and not in a good way. The worst example is right at the end, when an incredibly creepy and off-putting recitation of the “twelve steps”, which I seriously hoped wasn’t “thing” but google confirms actually is**, plays over Peter’s “redemption” scene. See, what they did there was to take a scene that should’ve had emotional heft, and add such a layer of creepiness to it that pretty much all impact is lost. There are loads of moments like this, and they all feel really “forced”. Another one is where TJ points out that the translation of a German victim’s name is “Godsend”. Apart from the simple point that I don’t believe he would know this, it feels like a poor attempt to shovel religious significance into a scene where none is needed.

    **The twelve steps – because forget medical help, strong familiar or peer support, etc – what you really need to “kick” an addiction, is God. Yeah.

    And finally, the misogyny.

    So, off the top of my head, I can recall three female characters in the film who have more than a single scene and aren’t “victims” of the serial killers. One is quite literally paralysed and mute, one is a nursemaid, and one is a grieving mother. Only the last has any dialogue at all. There are basically no female characters in this film. It shares its sexual politics with, say, “Double Dragon”, a videogame in which the hero’s girlfriend is punched in the stomach and carried off at the start of the game, only to never be seen again until the final battle where she’s strung-up and hanging from a wall. And even “Double Dragon” had a female thug as one of the common antagonists (ok, she was dressed in skin-tight leather and carried a whip, but I guess you have to take what you can get here.)

    I’m sorry, guys, but this is not acceptable to me. If you want to do a movie with no female characters, do it – hell, “The Thing” was a total sausage-fest, and is one of my all-time favorite movies – but don’t do this. Do not have every single female in your movie be a victim or slave with no distinguishing personality-traits whatsoever. This really, really bothers me.

    So add all that up… and you have a good movie, but one with some really, really serious issues. I definitely preferred the whodunnit aspect and fantastical tone of “Non-Stop” to the gritter, more “realistic” tone of “Tombstones”, mainly because the latter asks me to accept some things that I have difficulty accepting. Overall I would say that “Tombstones” kept me hooked throughout, but left a nasty aftertaste in my mouth.

  21. Paul, here’s Roger Ebert on A.A. (and specifically your misgivings about their use of “God”): http://www.rogerebert.com/rogers-journal/my-name-is-roger-and-im-an-alcoholic

  22. David – well from Ebert’s article, it sounds as though the system does work for some people, but does so more because of peer support than because of religious affirmation. Which doesn’t make the “twelve steps” nonsense any less creepy. I think it was actually meant to be a “touching moment” in the film – which shows just how off-base it was about the religious stuff, at least in this case. Maybe devout Christians could hear this shit and not be creeped the fuck out, or at least not have it completely take away from what’s clearly meant to be a fairly emotional moment. I don’t see how anybody else could.

    Also please note that the religious imagery, which absolutely worked to the detriment of the film, was easily the thing that LEAST offended me about it. The character of TJ – both in that the filmmakers’ attempts to avoid “obvious” racism are so glaring, they end up drawing attention to the more unfortunate racial aspects of the character anyway; and also in that “foster home” comment, which is either incredibly offensive to foster care providers or a damning incitement of American social services – bothered me a lot more than the religious stuff. And the portrayal of women bothered me way more than either of those things.

  23. I don’t believe in God. I’m also not an alcoholic. Therefore I have NO FUCKING RIGHT AT ALL to judge what helps them combat this crippling ailment. And neither do you or anyone else, Paul.

    And foster care in America, particularly in large cities, and particularly in New York at the tail end of the crack epidemic, is notoriously suspect. There are millions of horror stories about negligence and abuse concerning foster parents who only see the children in their care as a monthly check, not as people. I’m not saying all foster parents are this way, and neither is the movie. But T.J. says that’s his experience, and Scudder has been around the block enough to believe him.

    Things aren’t always the way they seem in your village, Paul.

  24. I had a short period of about 12 months of alcohol dependence a few years back. I never went to AA or anything. Just woke up one day and said fuck this, pull your head out of your arse Darren. My mother on the other hand had a life-long struggle with the bottle, hit rock-bottom a few times and went to AA. Changed her life dramatically. Hasn’t touched the shit in over a decade. She told me that the group experience of AA was a major factor in helping her deal with stuff. Talking it out, not feeling isolated like your the only one with problems, made all the difference. My sisters and me got our mum back. I would unreservedly recommend AA to anyone with an alcohol addiction.

  25. Paul, for the record, I wasn’t crazy about the film, either. Like you, I didn’t like the TJ character and was made a little uneasy by the movie’s treatment of the female characters. Having said that, the “higher power” stuff is integral to AA and considering I know people that it’s worked for I really think you’re off-base to criticize it just because you don’t believe in God.

  26. On the one hand… you guys are right in that I haven’t been through this, and obviously I know very little about it. If people choose to turn to their “faith” and it helps them recover from addiction, then who am I to criticise the proceedings?

    And, ignoring the “God” aspect for a moment, everybody including myself seems to agree that getting help from others is helpful when trying to overcome an addiction. In that respect, the concept of “AA” makes perfect sense to me. It’s easy to share experiences with somebody who knows what you’re going through.

    On the other hand…

    “Came to believe that a power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.”
    “Were entirely ready to have God remove all these defects of character.”
    “Sought through prayer and meditation to improve our conscious contact with God as we understood Him, praying only for knowledge of His will for us and the power to carry that out.”

    *Shudders.*

    Anyway, regardless of my or anybody else’s views on the “twelve steps”, hearing them recited over what was obviously supposed to be a poignant death scene of a major character in this movie absolutely destroyed the mood of that scene for me. Although thinking back, I did wonder if it was supposed to have that effect. The girl reciting the steps didn’t sound too keen on them, did she? I can’t imagine why that would be the case, though, since the film seems mostly positive about AA – or at the very least non-judgemental about that aspect of it.

    And as to Majestyk’s comment here:

    “There are millions of horror stories about negligence and abuse concerning foster parents who only see the children in their care as a monthly check, not as people.”

    I said that the “foster home” comment was either incredibly offensive to foster care providers, or a damning incitement of American social services. From what you’re saying, Majestyk, it would seem to be the second option. Is your “foster home” situation so bad that it can be taken as “realistic” for a teenager in a movie to prefer a life on the streets to that alternative? Even a teenager who has a disease so serious that the kind of exposure that wouldn’t give someone else a cold would kill him? Who gets beaten up by thugs during the movie, and who it’s clear has been through this before on multiple occasions?

    Because if that’s in any way a realistic situation… wow. I knew you guys had problems over there, but that’s pretty damn extreme.

  27. America’s fucked up, dude.

  28. On why there aren’t more women in the movie, from Jeremy Smith’s interview with Scott Frank:

    Jeremy: I read that you took twenty minutes out of the film.

    Frank: I did. I took a whole character out.

    Jeremy: Elaine?

    Frank: No. Ruth Wilson played Joe Durkin, the cop. Elaine was never in the movie.

    Jeremy: Okay. I was wondering if you’d tried to find a way to put Elaine in the film.

    Frank: People were speculating, but no. Joe Durkin is a man in the books, but I wrote him as a woman because I wanted a strong female character who wasn’t getting chopped up and raped. She was fantastic. Ruth just rocked the part. But I found that their relationship, even though she was a very tough character, softened the movie. He shouldn’t have a relationship with anybody. He should be completely on his own and completely isolated. That just made for a more powerful story.

    http://www.aintitcool.com/node/68787

  29. As to the foster care system in America, it’s not the greatest, but it’s not Dickensian. The worst case scenario is always shown in things like crime novels to create a more interesting character/situation, but there are problems. It’s not like a nice mom and dad are taking in one or two kids to be part of the family, usually. It’s more like several kids at once that are rotating in and out of a home because the system tries to keep kids with their natural parents as much as possible, so they go back to parents who often are trying hard to straighten themselves up, but can’t because they’re uneducated, poor and have mental health and/or drug problems. So, these kids are usually pretty messed up and difficult, which makes it hard on foster parents, which makes it hard for people to want to become foster parents. It’s a sad, vicious cycle. That said, I’ve known kids who were foster kids and I’ve known people who have taken in foster kids and, while the foster kids often have some longstanding issues, they’ve all been reasonably nice and well meaning people involved all around.

    As to the TJ character specifically, he has a lot of strikes against him for an ideal foster arrangement. 1 – He’s in a big city. 2 – He’s a boy. 3 – He’s black. 4 – He has health issues. 5 – He’s older. 6 – He has a history of running away. It’s totally unfair that these should be issues that make it more difficult for him to find a good foster situation, but that’s the reality of it.

  30. Vern – thanks for that. It’s to the movie’s credit that I didn’t notice that there was a character “missing”, I guess, but still… I honestly felt it needed that strong female character, or at least A strong female character. In the end, all I’ve got to go on is the final product. And while I thought this was definitely a good movie, I can’t give it a “pass” for that one. Again – it’s just something that really bothered me.

    And Maggie – that all makes sense. I keep coming back to what I call that “implicit assumption”, that TJ has no better home to go to than the streets or Matt’s couch. “Fucked-up” is right.

  31. Not to start a whole thing, but I think Paul’s criticism of AA are quite valid. Indeed, AA has taken a lot of heat recently because it’s based on such shoddy science, and unfortunately when you crunch the numbers it seems like it doesn’t really work very well, at least for most people.

    It has a great rap because for a small percentage of people –maybe between 5 and 10– it works really well and helps them deal with serious problems (they sometimes become quite evangelical for it, raising it profile). But for a much greater percentage of people, it appears to set them up for failure. That wouldn’t be such a problem if AA wasn’t such a sacred cow in our culture that it (and programs essentially modeled after it) dominates the whole discussion of addiction. Indeed, many court systems actual mandate participation in AA as part of probation requirements. That’s a pretty big problem, IMHO, and way too much pull for what is essentially a religious organization with a pretty low rate of actual effectiveness.*

    Clearly, AA has been enormously important to some people who need it, but I think it’s probably due for a little criticism for its many failures over the years, if for no other reason than to give alternate (and perhaps more universally effective) treatment programs some room to compete. There isn’t one single solution which works for everyone, and 12-step programs have so far done a fairly good job of squeezing out other possibilities.

    That said, I’m glad they helped Scudder or anyone you know.

    further reading:
    http://www.psmag.com/navigation/books-and-culture/75-years-alcoholics-anonymous-time-admit-problem-74268/

    http://www.scpr.org/programs/airtalk/2014/02/12/36020/challenging-alcoholics-anonymous-as-the-model-for/

    *Its a bit complicated, of course; you’ll see lots of stats which initially look contradictory until you look a little closer. Bottom line is, AA works great for people who are still doing it after 5 years, its just that the majority of people don’t make it that far.

  32. Mr S – I will say that Majestyk and co. were right to criticise me for being critical from a position of ignorance. The articles you guys are posting are all quite interesting, but in the end I don’t know which sources are the best / most reliable. I will stick to film criticism, and all I can say about that is that what should’ve been an emotional moment was ruined for me because of extreme “creep factor”. Now that will obviously not be the case for everybody – a devout religious believer may see nothing odd about those lines – but it was a problem for me. Not a major one, but a problem nonetheless.

    Yeah, this is another one of those weird examples of films where a lot of it worked really, really well; but what DIDN’T work made more of an impression on me than what DID. Again I think this comes down to personal preference. I would have to say that “Non-Stop” was the more flawed film of the two, but I preferred “Non-Stop” nonetheless because the claustrophobic whodunnit thing is very much to my “taste”, even when the execution of it is flawed.

  33. Wasn’t the “creep factor” partially intentional though? Whether or not one subscribes to the steps, they’re intended to bring on serenity and protection, the ability to withstand. Even though Scudder might be living by them vis a vis his sobriety, it’s kind of perverse to invoke them throughout a shitstorm of violence, especially when an adherent is one of the perpetrators. Plus, agreed that it’s significant that the recitation is rote/flat and done by an unknown voice (and a female one – is this the most dialogue we’ve heard from any woman in this film?) It distances the viewer from the immediate experience more than if your point-of-identification himself were doing and thereby more strongly endorsing the countdown. Honestly, I don’t like the device all that much – whatever it was meant to contribute got overshadowed by how affected it felt – but I think the writer/director is out to add discord to the emotional moment instead of buttressing it.

    As for the women … while I’m okay with portraying misogynist killers, the violence against women really did get under my skin. That fetishy title sequence, where the trappings of soft intimacy get inevitably and sickeningly revealed as torture, got revulsion across and kept piling it on. Later scenes – like testing the packets in the trunk, or when the cemetery weirdo was in front seat of the parked van – were so vivid and cruel that Scudder’s full revelation about 1991 didn’t pack as much punch – I’d been horrified out. Good movie, but soooo unsavory.

  34. Mr. Subtlety: My outlook re.the treatment of alcohol addiction is pretty straightforward and unsympathetic. Quite simple, really:

    1.) Rehab is for pussies with cash to spare.
    2.) AA is for pussies who can’t afford rehab.
    3.) If you truly don’t wish to stop drinking, then you shouldn’t.

    Years ago I read a biography of John Barrymore by his friend Gene Fowler, and a certain other gentleman is quoted in the book to the effect of:
    “If you care more about drinking that your health and appearance, then by all means drink. If you have no interest in how your family and friends regard your behavior, then drink. But no trips to sanitariums, and no excuses for your excesses. Just drink and die, and leave the rest to the angels”. Sounds about right.

    So, in this movie is Neeson’s character a variant of Harvey Keitel’s Bad Lieutenant? The loathesome, unsavory fuckup of a cop who manages some semblance of redemption by the time the end credits roll? Having yet to see it, I can only speculate.

  35. “Wasn’t the “creep factor” partially intentional though? Whether or not one subscribes to the steps, they’re intended to bring on serenity and protection, the ability to withstand. Even though Scudder might be living by them vis a vis his sobriety, it’s kind of perverse to invoke them throughout a shitstorm of violence, especially when an adherent is one of the perpetrators.”

    I wondered this myself, but again, I don’t see why they’d want this particular moment to be “creepy”. It doesn’t seem to fit in with the intentions of the scene. I thought it came off as sincerely meant, albeit ironic, the idea being to ram home the idea of the guy’s “redemption”.

    And I completely agree with you about the “violence against women” thing. Unsavoury is a good way of putting it.

  36. No Larry, Scudder’s basically a prickly-yet-decent guy. If he found redemption it was during recovery, offscreen before the movie started.

  37. I wouldn’t say it was meant to be “creepy”, so much as “unsettling”. I’m not a “devoutly religious believer”, but I thought it worked quite well in this scene, if a little heavy handed. I don’t need to be religious or believe in what the voice over is saying to understand that it’s meaningful for the character, so therefore, it’s affecting. It was about his struggle against his own demons, whether they be alcohol or violence and how he was thrust into a situation that he felt he had no choice but to act in a way that could put his mental/emotional/spiritual (what-have-you) well being in jeopardy.

  38. Larry – I didn’t want to say too much about the “redemption” thing for fear of spoilers, but I wasn’t talking about Scudder there.

  39. having someone read the twelve steps was super heavy handed and it didn’t really work very well, in my opinion, but as far as addiction goes, that shit is all about struggle. i got mad clues as to where Larry is coming from, but that’s just one part of the mind, and you talk to anyone who suffers, its really a full fuckin’ debate. its like what Radio Raheem was saying about love and hate, that pretty much sums it up

  40. With regard to TJ: he was an integral part of the book and portrayed as such – so lets stop with the faux-racial, pc crap. Again with AA: that program for individuals who need it doesn’t have to use god as a higher power if not religious. It could be your kids, your parents, your dog, etc. Whatever the fuck you want it to be. So don’t be so overly dramatic with the over the top pc pussy stuff. (fyi, I’m far from a religious man myself so before you get any thoughts….) A better man than I once put in a song: “whatever gets you through the night.”

    By the way, if you were to read the books you would find that an integral part of Scudder is the fact that he’s a horrible alcoholic. Were talking “almost” bottom of the barrel. Once again a humongous aspect of the books. So they didn’t add that part just for kicks.

    And what is this yapping about how women are being treated poorly? If anything they held back from what was in the text. They did leave out a crucial part of a female. She was a high class hooker, who was Scudder’s lady from time to time.

    With regard to posing a question on how women are treated: What the fuck? Is this Jezebel or a site about tough, action oriented films?

    It’s a shame it didn’t do better b/c I would have loved to see more of this series. I’d like to echo the fellow above who mentioned When the scared Ginmill closes and Eight Million ways to die are top shelf.

  41. Someone posed a question on serial killers at the top. We, in the states, are just witnessing a possible one that was caught in Texas a few days ago. He lived in Virgina and a local college girl disappeared. Come to find out over the last few years five or six young females have disappeared in that basic area.

    The gentlemen who was last seen with her on CCTV happened to haul ass across the country and the cops found him hiding in a tent on a beach in Corpus Christi. When the cops sent away his dna it came back hot with at least one of the other missing women popping up.

    So in all probability were seeing right now a current serial killer who killed his last woman and the bastard will spend the rest of his life in prison for kidnapping and murdering multiple women.

    http://www.cnn.com/2014/09/30/justice/virginia-missing-women/index.html

  42. The Original Paul

    October 2nd, 2014 at 1:41 am

    GQ – gotta say that first post above came off as particularly obnoxious. You can get your point across without name-calling.

    “So lets stop with the faux-racial, pc crap”

    I haven’t read the books, and honestly I don’t give a crap about them. I’m judging the film on its own merits, and in the film at least it seemed like TJ’s only reasons for being there were 1) to be an incredibly idealized “anchor” for Scudder, and 2) to raise the stakes at the end by putting himself in harm’s way. In the film he only seemed to be there as a plot point who just happened to have the exact characteristics of what Scudder was looking for, and whose entrance was really contrived and convenient. It also seemed like the film went out of its way to make TJ NOT appear to be another “Friday”, which came off as unrealistic (the German thing, etc). So no, I don’t think the comparison is outlandish at all.

    “And what is this yapping about how women are being treated poorly? If anything they held back from what was in the text… What the fuck? Is this Jezebel or a site about tough, action oriented films?”

    Erm… neither? At least if the “tough, action oriented films” bit implies machismo and / or misogynist sentients, which we rarely seem to get here (for which I’m greatly thankful). Look, when have I EVER criticised a film in this way before? I don’t remember an occasion where I’ve had to. Again, haven’t read the books, but to say “the source material is worse” and then use it as a point in the film’s favour… that’s screwy logic. And if a “tough, action-oriented film” only ever shows women as mute slaves or victims then again, I don’t think that’s an unfair criticism to level at it.

    Actually there is one other film I’ve criticised for the way it uses women – “Enter the Dragon”. A film I absolutely love and have seen at least fifteen times over the years. So this isn’t a terminal thing for me. And again, a great deal of “A Walk Among the Tombstones” worked very well, I thought. It was just a few things that I found grating.

  43. Have yet to see this, but I sort of second the rec to check out 8 MILLION WAYS TO DIE. A Scudder adaptation scripted by Oliver Stone, directed by Hal Ashby, starrin Jeff Bridges, sounds much more unique than the final result, but it’s watchable and fun nonetheless.

  44. This film was wonderful.
    If it didn’t star “Taken’s Liam Neeson” people would be raving about it from all corners.

    Just subtly great things like the afore mentioned knock on the window punch to the meet in the coffee shop:

    “it’s me peter?”
    “Oh hey peter….hi!”
    (rethinks the effort in keeping up the cheerful bullshit)
    “fuck… do I know you?”

    Plus criminals portrayed as reasonable people in a film are always good.

    Okay so nothing big or fantastical happens but what a great unravelling crime story.

    Scott Frank needs to do a lot more work.

  45. The Undefeated Gaul

    December 13th, 2014 at 2:40 pm

    I liked this a lot more than I thought I would. I was expecting your basic 90’s feeling type serial killer thriller and basically that’s what I got, but with added Neeson moments that just elevate the whole thing. I’m talking about the knock-knock punching through the window bit, the way he responds to a dude pulling a knife on him, the way he talks to the kidnappers on the phone and starts intimidating them instead of the other way around. I thought the villains were suitably creepy as well, the way Ray talks on the phone, pretty damn unsettling. That “that was from before you set the terms” bit. So good stuff, I enjoyed this. Hope Neeson makes more of this type of shit and less of the Non-Stop and Unknown things. Waste of his talent, let him do the proper badass stuff. It’s what he’s made for.

    That TJ character though, why anyone would ever think that was a good idea to add to a movie I will never understand. He’s the Jar Jar Binks of A Walk Among The Tombstones while Liam Neeson is the Qui-Gon Jinn, aka the best thing about it by a long shot and maybe even the only thing making the whole thing worthwile.

  46. This wasn’t bad. The issue is that to me (and I suspect most of us here) this should have been a bullseye. Mostly I think the TJ stuff lets it down. Not because he’s a “magical you-know-what” character, which I wouldn’t necessarily refute, but while that subplot had a few good moments, it reeked of SAVE THE CAT. Was this sub-plot in the book?

  47. Call me a sick puppy, but this has been my most rewatched movie of late. It’s just exceptionally well written, directed and acted by all involved – the character of Scudder with his redemptive arc, the haunted cinematography that captures the New York that I’ve learned to love and fear from a hundred other films in my lifetime. And I got no problem at all with TJ. There’s no pretense in his character – the wrong actor could have harmed him, but this Astro Bradley kid plays him tough and vulnerable simultaneously.

    It’s also a sign of Scott Franks talent behind the camera, and his faith in our intelligence and taste that he surprisingly hasn’t put a lot of gore into a film with two of the most disturbing fucked up serial killers I’ve ever seen. Most of the shown violence comes courtesy of Scudder blowing away thugs Dirty Harry style (I like the way he kinda saunters down the stairs after shooting the third guy in the opening scene), or its Scudder taking a violent beating. Which I guess is appropriate, since it’s Scudders journey through hell on his way to redemption. The demons he meets along the way assist in his purging.

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