A Walk Among the Tombstones shows that maybe, just maybe, filmmakers finally understand Lawrence Block’s novels.
Based on Block’s 10th novel, with elements from A Dance at the Slaughterhouse and The Sins of the Fathers, A Walk Among the Tombstones captures the spirit of the Matt Scudder novels, especially the nuances of character, while also giving a brisk, action-packed plot packed with creepy villains who are chillingly real.
And Liam Neeson, who has fashioned himself into a not-to-be-messed-with action hero, proves himself to be the perfect Scudder, the former NYPD cop turned unlicensed private investigator.
Is he the Scudder I envisioned when reading the novels? Now that I think about it, yeah, he is.
Hollywood has never been as kind to the prolific Block as it has to the late Elmore Leonard or, more recently, to Dennis Lehane.
Films such as Get Shorty and Jackie Brown and the FX series Justified have captured Leonard’s combination of serious plot, wry wit, and pitch-perfect dialogue. Lehane’s novels such as Mystic River and The Drop, which opened last week and which we reviewed, not only have captured the spirit of his books, but have embraced and enhanced his vivid vision.
Not so for Block.
While several screen treatments are attributed to Block (you can look up imdb.com, too), there have been only two major movies based on his novels, and neither did his books proud. The 1986 film 8 Million Ways to Die with Jeff Bridges as Block’s perennial antihero Matt Scudder was just all right, though good luck trying to correlate the film with the 1982 novel. Then there was the “what on earth were they thinking?” Burglar released in 1987 and starring Whoopi Goldberg as Block’s “gentleman burglar” Bernie Rhodenbarr. The less said about that film, the better.
And now we have A Walk Among the Tombstones, the film that Block fans have been waiting for, well, since the series began in 1976 with The Sins of the Father.
In A Walk Among the Tombstones, Scudder reluctantly agrees to help heroin trafficker Kenny Kristo (Dan Stevens) find the men who kidnapped and brutally murdered his wife. Scudder has little use for Kenny the drug dealer but he relates to the man’s grief over his wife. As he investigates, Scudder soon realizes that this is not the first time that the loved ones of drug dealers have been targeted.
As Scudder prowls the backstreets and marginal neighborhoods of New York City, he is aided by Kenny’s addict brother Kenny (Boyd Holbrook) and the homeless teenager TJ (Brian “Astro” Bradley), a character who first appeared in Block’s 1991 A Dance at the Slaughterhouse. Meanwhile, the vicious murderers Ray (David Harbour) and Albert (Adam David Thompson) have targeted another victim.
A Walk Among the Tombstones is fairly faithful to the essential plot of Block’s novel. The action and the hunt for the murderers are spot-on.
Gone is Scudder’s relationship with Elaine, a wise move; while it works well in the books, it would have muddied the film’s plot. The screenplay carefully doles out what prompted Scudder to leave the NYPD; if viewers aren’t familiar with the books they will think they know why in the first half hour, but there is more to come.
The violence level in A Walk Among the Tombstones is high, but no higher than your typical thriller and the violence is not gratuitous. But be prepared.
Neeson’s Scudder is how Block has shaped this character—world-weary, resigned to a lifetime of guilt. He has seen too much of the seedy side of life, yet still believes in justice. A man of violence who now abhors violence, Scudder is, nonetheless, prepared to do what he has to do. We want more Scudder movies and with Neeson as the private investigator.
Although a trivia question at the film’s preview asked which PBS series Dan Stevens starred in, the people behind us still didn’t believe that this steely-eyed, dark-haired drug trafficker was the same actor who also had played the aristocratic (and blond) Matthew Crawley in Downton Abbey. Stevens is virtually unrecognizable in A Walk Among the Tombstones and his transformation again shows what an intense, skillful actor he is. Stevens’ Kenny Kristo would never be mistaken for Crawley, the would-be heir to Downton Abbey who is Lord Grantham's third cousin once removed. Stevens also is starring in the new thriller The Guest, which also is a long way from a dapper British aristocrat.
The supporting cast also works well to give life to the film. Adam David Thompson (Martha Marcy May Marlene) and David Harbour (Elliot Hirsch on The Newsroom, Reed Akley on Manhattan) embrace the chilling criminals and their odd relationship. Boyd Holbrook (Milk, The Big C, Hatfields & McCoys) takes the typical drug-addict character and imbues him with a complexity. Brian “Astro” Bradley (Earth to Echo) shows the survival mentality of this intelligent kid of the streets. And if you are wondering where you saw Ólafur Darri Ólafsson, who plays the groundskeeper; he played the groundskeeper in True Detective.
Director Scott Frank, who also wrote the screenplay, keeps the plot moving at a fast clip, while lingering over the seedy sides of New York City during the 1990s where the film is set. Frank is best known as a screenwriter for films such as The Wolverine, Marley and Me, and Minority Report.
There never seems to be a definitive answer to the number of books attributed to Block, a four-time Edgar Award winner, among other awards, including being named Grand Master in 1994 by the Mystery Writers of America. He began his writing career in the mid-1950s, in a variety of genres, and has written under several pseudonyms. It has been said that he has written anywhere from 150 to 200 novels and that number actually seems low to me.
No matter the exact number, Block has been on the ground floor of the mystery genre’s transformation. His Matt Scudder novels went from an old-school basic sleuth to one whose interior motivation was as important as the crimes he helped solved while, at the same time, never veering from the tenets that what makes a good detective. Scudder has never stayed in one place emotionally, but has evolved through the approximately 17 novels and various short stories that Block has written about him.
Scudder also was one of the first mystery fiction characters to acknowledge his alcoholism and try to get a handle on it. Scudder’s AA meetings are an important part of the novels and his understanding of the 12 Steps and how these relate to him and his quest for redemption and justice are a major part of the series. The film A Walk Among the Tombstones shows Scudder’s struggles with his addiction and how the meetings are, for a long time, his only lifeline to people.
Now that Matt Scudder has been well represented on film—and, please, give us another with Neeson—it’s time to think of another Block character I always thought would make a good film. Keller, a lonely, wistful hit man, was the subject of Block’s four episodic novels, starting with Hit Man (1998), and one full-length novel, Hit and Run (2008).
Just a suggestion.
Rated R for strong violence, disturbing images, language and brief nudity, 114 minutes
Photos: Top and second photo: Liam Neeson; third photo: Dan Stevens; fourth photo: Liam Neeson with Brian “Astro” Bradley. Photos courtesy Universal Pictures/Cross Creek Pictures