Thursday, October 2, 2014

A Walk Among the Tombstones trips over itself

A Walk Among the Tombstones, a thriller based on Lawrence Block's novel , features Liam Neeson as former police detective Matt Scudder, a sober alcoholic now working as an unlicensed investigator of sorts in the dark, wet underbelly of New York City.  The film , steadily directed by  Scott Frank, has a great look to it, dark, neo-noir atmospherics that make the city's architecture express the dual qualities of decay and splendor, and Neeson, displaying a bit more resigned humanity than he has in several films, does a good job  of playing a loose cannon caught between both sides of the law as he tries to locate serial killers who are targeting the wives of drugs dealers. Lots of ethical questions arise, and possible audience complications arise--who deserves a bloody justice that falls outside the law?, who are are we supposed to be in sympathy with?--but there is a sentimentality in the story line that spoils what might have been a first rate, remorseless  crime drama. The introduction of a cute orphan black kid, smart, unctuous, smart mouthed, lovable as a all get out when all is said and concluded, is a conspicuous sympathy play , and it rings false in a film that otherwise has the look of a world where good deeds, gallantry and the best intentions go unnoticed, unremarked  upon and which have no effect in changing the cold heart of things.

That Scudder is an alcoholic who attends AA meetings as a means of keeping his focus, his eyes on the prize, so to speak, is a credible element to the character, but there is a sequence where the  12 Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous are read over a montage as a means of producing an alienating effect of a kind. It's a hokey device, actually, and you're not sure how it's meant to come across, cynical, ironic, hopeful. Who can tell? The 12 Steps , described by AA as being "spiritual in their nature", address the notion that the drunk who wishes to recover needs to rely on a spiritual solution to their malaise , to seek knowledge of God's will and the power to carry it out, and to make amends to those who have been harmed. A sensible and simple plan, encouraging good deeds over bad actions and worst results, but the montage the Steps against are a narrative of violence , pure malice and a need to inflict pain and suffering, followed yet again by violence that is revenge, sloppy, crunching, relentless revenge. The juxtaposition is jarring, which would be fine if something had been made of it, but nothing was, and it's a waste of film time  What this film turns out to be is an efficient piece of film making that has a great look and occasionally an effective tone that suddenly goes soft in the heart and soft in the head, not the thing you want for a hard boiled crime story. 

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