They've done it at last: made a Liam Neeson-stomps-some-ass flick where, as the credits roll, there's more stuff to be glad you saw than Neeson himself. Based on one of those Lawrence Block novels that's pretty smart but also too invested in the mechanics of rape and torture, A Walk Among the Tombstones is a grim beauty, shot like nobody told writer-director Scott Frank he's supposed to be churning out schedule-filling late-summer product. Instead, Frank has crafted the kind of thriller that Neeson's brooding elder-toughs have deserved all along, a tense and prickly picture more interested in shoe-leather investigative work than in making a lark of brutal deaths. Neeson's Matt Scudder — the glum ex-cop hero of many bloody Block books — bobs about Frank's colorless pre-millennial New York like a cigarette stub in a can's last spit of beer: He's forgotten and unwanted where no one would ever look.
But that New York is worth looking at. Savoring, even, in its grand decay. Without sacrificing the momentum of the crime story, Frank and director of photography Mihai Mlaimare Jr. immerse us in long, static shots, sharply composed, where we see into one hollow of the billions rotted into the city — and are left to wonder what outside life might be pressing in on our hero. An early scene exemplifies the technique: On the right side of the screen, Neeson slumps in a booth too early in the day at some deserted, olive-drab bar. To his left, via a natural split-screen effect, we see the proprietor, out of Neeson's sight, and then far up above him the door to the street. Sickly light cuts in through a window, guiding our eye to the doorway. Everything's still, a little pathetic, but we're cued to be attentive, to divide our gaze between Neeson's dispirited lump and the someone we know will soon bust in and get the movie started.
It's a rare moment of quiet and breathing and dread in a studio picture. It's echoed, later, by the scenes of Neeson on the case, picking his way through the hallways of buildings we know he shouldn't be in. As in a strong horror film, dangerous possibility crowds into the best moments: What you imagine this New York might cough up could be scarier than what it eventually does.
Not that the villains of A Walk Among the Tombstones aren't unsettling. The case Neeson's on is yet another kidnapping, this time of the wife of a drug trafficker (Dan Stevens) who offers forty grand to Scudder to locate the perpetrators. They turn out to be mundane and uncanny at once: goateed white boys, pale as the grubs under rocks, played by David Harbour and Adam David Thompson, their faces artfully shielded from us for much of the film. Of course, Scudder finds they're up to much more than this one abduction, and Frank dutifully shows us flashes of his heavies engaged in the sexualized violence so common to best-selling crime novels.
Neeson spends most of the film in bummed-out-sleuth mode, puzzling rather than fighting, commanding the screen even as his Scudder sinks into the shadows. The painstaking buildup makes the killing, when it comes, more terrifying and cathartic than is the Hollywood norm.