Recovering alcoholic Scudder operates as a private investigator some years after his career-ending accidental killing of an innocent passerby during a robbery. He’s haunted deeply by his drunken mistake and is now very selective about the cases he takes on. When high-level drug dealer Kenny Kristo (Dan Stevens) approaches him about the kidnapping and subsequent murder of his wife (even after paying the demanded ransom in full), Scudder reluctantly accepts the job of locating the crooks. Paralleling all this is Scudder’s befriending of homeless teen TJ (Brian “Astro” Bradley), a smart, cocky kid with an interest in detective work. Though their relationship borders on cliché at times, especially as TJ becomes increasingly central to Scudder’s investigation, both Neeson and Bradley play it so naturally and unforced that it works.
For awhile the film has a thoughtful, meditative feel, bolstered by Scott Frank’s incisive, pithy dialogue. Though set in the ‘90s, the film has the rhythms and atmosphere of a ‘70s-era cop drama. Midway through, however, the whole thing begins to unravel when the focus inelegantly shifts from Kristo and his murdered wife to the murderers themselves. Without revealing too much about the plot twists, the men behind the crime are presented in such a way that a peculiarly homophobic subtext creeps in.
Once they’ve abducted yet another potential victim, Scudder seems to represent some sort of avenging angel sent by God to strike down these “social deviants.” It’s not just that they kidnap and kill people, the filmmakers seem to say, it’s also that they’re gay and supposedly despise the opposite gender. There’s definitely a confused message at the heart of Tombstones and it throws a wrench into what could’ve been an excellent thriller had the tightly controlled first half transitioned more smoothly into the second. Perhaps something essential was lost in the adapting of the novel to the big screen.
Among the virtues of A Walk Among the Tombstones is the dark, dreary, and strikingly beautiful cinematography by Mihai Malaimare, Jr. Universal’s Blu-ray presentation offers a flawless transfer of those atmospheric visuals. The DTS-HD MA 5.1 lossless surround mix is also excellent. The movie’s sound design is generally rather subtle, but when it roars to life with gunshots it offers palpable resonance. Carlos Rafael Rivera’s moody score is well integrated in the mix.
For reasons unknown, Universal has chosen to skimp on special features. A director’s commentary might’ve shed some much needed light on Frank’s intentions (and the thematic misfires). But all we get are two very short featurettes: “A Look Behind the Tombstones” (12 minutes) and “Matt Scudder: Private Eye” (six minutes; a Blu-ray exclusive). The Blu-ray Combo Pack also includes a standard DVD and Digital Copy.
A Walk Among the Tombstones is sure to spark discussion amongst those who give it a chance. The deliberate pacing and intriguing character interaction that dominates the first half gives way to some unusual (and borderline offensive) developments in the second half. The jarring shift isn’t quite enough to derail the movie completely, but it makes it hard not to leave without mixed feelings. Liam Neeson is in such fine form, the film earns a cautious recommendation.