A Walk Among the Tombstones: A Well Executed Adaptation that Could Have Been More

By Nguyen Le · September 21, 2014

Let’s face it – bad guys will never wise up to avoid Liam Neeson and this isn’t Taken 3 retitled. The adaptation of Lawrence Block’s novel is the most layered and poetic journey for Neeson’s tough-guy persona yet, too bad some rough spots have to be there to trip his steps.

After causing the death of a bystander on the job, Matthew Scudder goes from police officer to a low-key unlicensed private investigator. When a drug’s dealer wife was abducted and, after the ransom was paid, returned in pieces, his services are requested. Of course, “settle down” isn’t the next thing on the killers’ to-do list.

Neeson’s signature bravado remains intact, gone however are the agility seen in retired agent Bryan Mills or the always-tense mode of air marshal Bill Marks. Without the difference, the actor would have crept closer to the “Expendable Recruitment Office," losing yet another chance to prove how solid he can be. Yes, he still does the things we love – punch (only once though), shoot and make boot-shaking threats over the phone – but to see him as more thinking man and less action hero here results in Neeson’s most compelling, if not his best, performance in recent years.

The supporting cast hold their ground well around the actor, especially Ólafur Darri Ólafsson (The Deep) as a rather bizarre cemetery groundskeeper and David Harbour (End of Watch) who is tremendously scary. Each of them has a memorable sequence that ramps up the tense factor much faster and more effective than any of this year’s horror films in their whole runtime.

The only young face in the film is 18-year-old Brian ‘Astro’ Bradley (The X Factor), playing a homeless kid who sticks around the library and smart enough to know the Y2K event – visually and verbally referenced quite too many times in the film – is nonsense. The role is as clichéd as can be, yet be glad it is there to lighten up the consistently dark and draining tone.

Personally, green directors become equivalent to the warning “make a U-turn if possible” after Transcendence and Maleficent, but director Scott Frank has created and maintained the mood so well it is hard to believe this is only his second go-round. It is a brilliant decision to have cinematographer Mihai Malaimar Jr. (The Master) on board too, fusing much beauty into the film’s overall muted, noir-ish look and in an interesting move using highly colorful flashbacks to emphasize the disturbing elements.

But perhaps Frank has put so much effort into directing that his writing fumbles. The mystery unfolds slowly in Tombstones, just like Zodiac, but by varying its pacing the latter doesn’t have a dragging second act. The distracting slowness leaves room for one to pick at the film’s predictability and outdatedness (the film is set in 1999) when they are totally forgivable. It is a shame, as prior to this, Frank is an experienced screenwriter.

Even both the killers are a problem: by not giving a reason as to why they do what they do, the unexpectedly shocking scenes seem to be there just for the sake of being shocking. The issue here is, should there be an explanation it would come off as if not handled right and unsaid motives can sometimes be more affecting. A frustrating flaw that might have translated to the screen because it was rooted in Block’s novel.

Much credit should also be given to Carlos Rafael Rivera in his debut film-composing work. Similar to the game Alan Wake, the score stands against the tone of the material – somber and chilling rather than oppressive or freaky. The moody melodies make the film’s title come alive in a way. There’s something beautiful but eerie should one find themselves, literally, among the tombstones.

A solid effort all around, no doubt about it, but Tombstones could have been more engrossing and less familiar. Still, having a thinking man film, with Neeson headlining too no less, serving as a transition to fall from the summer season is welcoming. Don’t expect another Taken and the walk might come off as quite worthwhile.