Matthew Scudder (Liam Neeson) has a way of getting to the point. In A Walk Among the Tombstones, based on the tenth of Lawrence Block’s Scudder novels, Scudder is snooping through a dubious character’s things, and is caught at it by Mr. Dubious, who wields a big knife. Scudder, an ex-cop and off-the-books private eye, takes one look at the guy and knows the knife isn’t about to be used. So instead of provoking him into violence, Scudder nonchalantly but firmly says something to the effect of, Look, I can take that away from you, but I’d rather not have to. Scudder isn’t a fan of brutality, though he has seen enough of it to tide him over several lifetimes. Liam Neeson, here and elsewhere in the movie, speaks and moves with the effortless authority of a man who still, at age 62, can fold you in half without breaking stride, but conducts himself with the grace of a man who would rather not have to.
A Walk Among the Tombstones is grim and sometimes ghastly, but its heartbeat is gentle and patient. Writer-director Scott Frank isn’t a fan of brutality either, though the plot is one of Block’s nastier items, about a pair of psychos who prey on the wives of rich men in the drug business. Such men are disinclined to call the police, and, realistically I guess, they don’t command a Tony Montana-style army. The psychos, too, depend on their marks to race into the situation with unclear heads full of stress and rage. Ultimately, the sickos demand a ransom but then deliver a kidnapped wife back in pieces. They don’t do it for the money, though the money does keep the lights on; they do it because they like torturing women, and the opening credits of the movie begin as a possible erotic afternoon delight and then gradually shade into something darker and more repugnant. Frank catches us leaning the wrong way here, but overall he suggests rather than lingers on the pain of the women.
The movie isn’t terribly concerned with women as anything other than plot motivators (Scudder’s prostitute girlfriend from the book has been omitted), which may draw it some charges of sexism it doesn’t really earn. It’s more engaged with the pain of men, the pain they’re in and the pain they cause. Scudder faithfully attends AA meetings, and a climactic event is intercut with an earlier church stop, where Scudder solemnly listens to a woman listing the Twelve Steps while in the future there is bloody cataclysm in and out of the rain. I don’t think anyone could call the movie pro-masculine; Scott Frank may elide the horrors, but he makes sure we catch enough of misogynist psychopathology to give us the shivers. One scene will haunt me: the two monsters, idling in their van, mesmerized by the sight of their latest prey, who walks the family dog and waves cheerily at them as she passes, while Donovan’s “Atlantis” — surely the creepiest use of it since GoodFellas — oozes from the van’s radio. It’s a terrifying sequence.
Scudder gets by with the help of a sidekick of sorts, T.J. (Brian “Astro” Bradley), a homeless kid who uses the library for reading and occasionally sleeping out of the rain. T.J. is black, but as played by Bradley he’s admirably not-cute; we don’t have to sit there and worry about the white man patting his young Negro ward on the head condescendingly — T.J. is tough and smart and helpful in the case. Scudder finds himself in this mess when a drug dealer (Dan Stevens) comes to him seeking justice for his wife, returned in “poor condition” by the psychos. The dealer has a brother (Boyd Holbrook) who came back from Desert Storm a heroin addict and who might be useful if he can get over his own man-pain. T.J. is about the only character we see, Scudder included, who just gets on with things.
The movie is great on such things as addicts’ rituals (two shots and a cup of coffee), the alarming but bracing sounds of a gunfight in full eruption, the sickly quiet after said gunfight, the way a sociopath sits down and eats calmly five minutes after having garroted someone, a whiskey bottle swung into someone’s skull that doesn’t shatter but bounces off with a painful-sounding tonk!, the grotesque indignity of slipping on bloody stairs. A Walk Among the Tombstones, indeed, strikes me as the first great American film of the new season, a stoically gripping opening shot to inaugurate the cooler months, when we adults can bid a temporary farewell to superheroes and robots and go, once again, to movies made for us.