“It was the opposite of my character in Taken. He’s very vulnerable, quite scared and fearful individual, but still tries to do the right thing.”
“I don’t mind a reasonable amount of trouble.”
—Sam Spade, The Maltese Falcon
“Did the corruption get to you?” Ex-cop Matthew Scudder (Liam Neeson) doesn’t stop to think. “Not really,” he says. “I wouldn’t have been able to support my family without it.” The camera at this moment in A Walk Among Tombstones cuts conventionally between the two men talking, one face and then the other. But the shot of Scudder here reveals in an instant just where he’s been and where this movie is going.
In part, this is because the shot transitions from the younger man, a drug dealer named Kenny Kristo (Dan Stevens) whose house, Scudder notes, is expensively appointed, and whose face, you notice, features a painstakingly groomed beard. But mostly, it’s because the shot frames Neeson’s face, worn and wily and also, still, curious, at least enough to have come out to Kenny’s house on an invite he and you knew right away was trouble, and enough to ponder the Kenny’s ask, namely, that Scudder help him avenge his wife Carrie’s (Razane Jammal) murder.
Neeson’s face is, of course, monumental, the foundation of any number of films. It’s changed since he played Michael Collins and Schindler, for reasons known and unknown. And in his recent films, the rebirth-by-action films, it’s taken on an almost unbearable resonance, lined with loss and regret and memories both acute and ever receding. If the details of Scudder’s pain remain unknown—apart from an opening scene set in NYC 1991, in which a hard-drinking Scudder shoots down three criminals in a fit of terrible awkwardness and brutal accuracy, framed by grim morning light—the burdens he bears are ever visible.
As this scene precedes Scudder’s encounter with Kenny, you know a little bit about what’s behind his weary gaze at his prospective employer, the wall of pain behind his eyes. The film, based on a 1992 novel by Lawrence Block and one of 17 featuring Scudder, follows the evolving relationship between employer and employee. This relationship complicated by Kenny’s brother Peter (Boyd Holbrook), untrustworthy by definition as an addict who first approaches Scudder at an AA meeting, and by the fact that Kenny’s loss looks about to be replicated when one his colleagues, a Russian drug dealer (Sebastian Roche) fond of FILA tracksuits, has his 12-year-old daughter kidnapped.
When Scudder comes on the serial murdering aspect of the case, he’s not precisely expecting it, but he’s not surprised. Again, his experience—the experience we don’t know and might imagine—leaves him sad and ready. That is, until he meets TJ (Brian “Astro” Bradley, also excellent in Earth to Echo), a kid without a home and with an affection for Dashiell Hammet. This dropped name makes clear the plotty perversities of A Walk Among Tombstones have particular contexts, including an era when their plots were less actionated and their pursuits more cerebral.
TJ and Scudder’s meeting takes place in an appropriately throwback setting, the public library where the boy is quicker with the microfiche than his elder, where he displays an intuition for putting pieces together that proves utterly useful. TJ wants to be a detective, he tells Scudder, but/and his sketchbook reveals he also aspires to superherodom. While Scudder first appears amused by this distraction (the smile that almost turns up the corners of Neeson’s mouth is fantastic), he also commits to the kid, and their friendship ends up the movie’s most crucial emotional journey; though not exactly resolved, it’s wholly affecting and complicated.
Their investigation, unevenly paced and undertaken as a series of small steps forward and back, hardly ever goes as expected. It leads Scudder and TJ to places they might rather not see, to see men possessed of daunting ugliness, living in a world so suffused with corruption that they tend not to be noticed. This world, noted more than once by people living in it, is at once familiar and strange. It’s familiar that girls and women serve mostly as victims and emblems, damsels to be rescued and pursued, images to be hung on walls and lamented, dreams to be lost and missed.
For all that sameness, though, the film does a couple of other things as well. It’s at least slightly strange that what’s lost is never redeemed, that no man can fix what’s wrong, that no violence can solve anything. And so the film creates few welcome tensions, between what you recognize and what you don’t, between what Scudder must know and what he confronts in a couple of suspects, can be unnerving. A Walk Among the Tombstones isn’t just another vengeance movie, just another coming of age story or franchise starter, even just another Liam Neeson movie. It’s all that, but it is also, sometimes, a movie about what you expect and about how movies create what you expect.