Wednesday, January 14, 2015

A Walk Among the Tombstones Stumbles onto the Screen


A Walk Among the Tombstones is ostensibly a crime drama/thriller about a private detective searching for two kidnappers, but it succeeds at generating neither drama nor thrills. It is a messy and misjudged collection of recycled cliches and empty red herrings centered around Liam Neeson's standard retired/alcoholic blank slate.

It has exactly three types of scenes. The ones that work involve the antagonists, Ray and Albert, and their quest to sexually torture innocent young women and extort their corrupt men out of large sums of money. These scenes are disgusting, perverse, and unsettling, but they're supposed to be that way, so I have to give them some credit (the opening credits sequence is particularly effective). There's just no point to the depravity, no redemption or justification that makes watching these awful events worthwhile.

The scenes that don't work involve Liam Neeson's investigation. He doesn't have a character (outside of "retired alcoholic blank slate") so there's no reason to invest in him, and since we see all the antagonists' movements there's never any real tension. The editor seems to know what she's doing because she skips past a lot of the boring interviews in a montage and overlays some others with flashbacks, but the rest of the film is actors without characters spoon-feeding the process of finding the killers to the audience.

Then there's the kid. He must be from the book (yes, this muddled blunder was adapted from a novel), because the movie has no idea what to do with him. Outside his scenes, the tone is determined to stay solemn, but when he shows up everything turns into a screwball comedy. He's full of Endearing Ideas About The Universe (apparently restaurants encourage black children to drink soda in order to lower their sperm count—are we supposed to take this seriously?). He comes into this insistently dark film about rape and child molestation and starts playing detective and generally trying to be a cute little kid. There's no way I can overstate how incongruous he is to the rest of the film, and it's not like he plays a small part. He's a critical element of both the conflict's climax and its denouement, and he just doesn't fit.


What's even weirder is that there are other scenes in the film which could play as comedic if they had different music. Neeson is having a tense conversation on the phone in which he's negotiating with the kidnappers, and after he hangs up the camera pulls back to reveal him sitting in a child's bedroom surrounded by fluffy pink stuffed animals. But the score never strays away from its solemn melancholy, so these scenes try to play out as grim and gloomy while I'm sitting on the couch laughing.

But the biggest question is how a movie like this managed to put Mihai Malaimare Jr. behind the camera. This movie was shot by the same man that shot The Master for Paul Thomas Anderson, and you can feel him struggling to make interesting shots out of uninteresting material. Someone walks into a house and we get a God's-eye-view shot straight out of Psycho. There are an abundance of frankly quite beautiful extreme-wide shots of the city and the urban nightlife. But it's ultimately window dressing for a story that never adds up to anything.

There's an available reading of the film that it's about a [maybe put this in its own "spoiler alert" section at the end]

With reviews like this I feel obligated to explain why I even watched the movie to begin with. There's no point in whining about something you knew you weren't going to like before watching it. I'm pretty good at guessing what I'm going to like or dislike based on trailers and word of mouth, and I do my best to avoid watching movies that won't appeal to me. But I liked the trailer. I like Liam Neeson, and I love the idea of a subtle, behind-the-scenes pre-apocalypse, but it just didn't work for me. A Walk Among the Tombstones wasn't a total disaster, but at best it's a series of flashy, disturbing images with nothing underneath, and at worst it ranged from dull and tedious to outright exasperating.

2014: Yearly Releases

**Final Note — Spoiler Alert**
I want to talk about the ending briefly, so if you don't want that spoiled then stop reading now. Although to be honest, if you can't guess the ending from the premise then you haven't watched enough movies to justify adding A Walk Among the Tombstones to your queue. Just watch something better instead.

The opening scene of the movie shows a disheveled Liam Neeson taking shots with his morning coffee on the day of his last drink before giving up alcohol. After this the film flashes forward, and he repeats this story at a couple of Alcoholics Anonymous meetings, showing off that he's been sober for 8 years now. But his investigation seems to be testing his resolve, and in this light the film can be read as a struggle to maintain principles in the face of adversity.

Toward the end of the film there's a ridiculous "final shootout"-type scene between the good guys and the bad guys (think Sam Rockwell in Seven Psychopaths), with almost every minor character somehow roped into the event. But if this wasn't silly enough in itself, it's played with someone reading AA's Twelve Steps over the action, bluntly implying that this violence is something that Neeson's character is trying to overcome the same way he's overcome alcohol (an idea which was never introduced until now—in fact, Neeson has been fighting retirement to keep his violent job).

The very end of the film involves Neeson and Dan Stevens finding Adam David Thompson, the final remaining antagonist, and cornering him in his house. Neeson says that they shouldn't kill him, that they should take him to the proper authorities (in line with the idea that he's trying to give up violence), but Stevens insists that they kill him. Unwilling to participate, Neeson leaves; but he eventually returns to find Stevens killed and Thompson loose in the house. There's a final fight scene, and afterward, after they're done fighting and Neeson has won, he shoots Thompson in the head anyway. So much for his principles.

It's not impossible to read this nonsense as a tragedy, but even then I'm not sure what the message is supposed to be. David Fincher's Se7en was also a bleak neo-noir tragedy, but that had something to say about human nature and the flaws we all carry with us. What is Neeson's tragic flaw, that he wants to stop torture and rape? That sounds like a pretty reasonable desire to me, and unlike in Se7en there's nothing unethical about his pursuit of that desire.

This is what I mean when I say there's no redemption. Neeson's character doesn't necessarily have to be redeemed, but there's no justification in the film for its insufferable tediousness. There's a common misconception that darker movies are somehow more serious or more real or more important, but A Walk Among the Tombstones is a perfect example of a movie which is depressing in its dark tone and disappointing in its poor construction.

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