Scott Frank’s A Walk Among the Tombstones, set in 1999 during the lead-up to the possible upheaval related to the Y2K bug, is first and foremost an absolutely dreadful period piece. There’s plenty of talk about Yahoo, Internet start-ups, and advertisements for Y2K preparations, but none of this hullabaloo informs the gloomy murder mystery that brings Liam Neeson’s Matt Scudder, an unlicensed private investigator, into contact with Kenny Kristo (Dan Stevens), a wealthy drug trafficker whose wife was kidnapped and hacked into pieces. As the film shambles along, Frank infers other thematic concerns, from alcoholism and gun control to the nature of vengeance and jealousy, but they all come to be little more than window dressing for a run-of-the-mill detective story in line with ’90s thrillers like The Bone Collector.
As if to underline the film’s hardboiled intentions, when Scudder meets TJ (Brian “Astro” Bradley), a homeless adolescent who eventually becomes his “associate,” the young man speaks knowingly about Sam Spade and Philip Marlow. And Frank’s script, adapted from Lawrence Block’s novel, delights in sporadic bouts of pulpy dialogue and dark humor, a way of breaking up the severity of the gruesome murders carried out by a psychopathic duo (David Harbour and Adam Davis Thompson) posing as DEA agents. Indeed, what starts with Kristo’s wife becomes a series of murders aimed at the wives and daughters of drug dealers, but Frank’s teasing of these killers’ motives remains consistently vague and comes to nothing by the time the bloody finale rears its head.
Not unlike Frank’s debut, The Lookout, the film brandishes an overabundance of story, which the appealingly shaggy presentation only partially alleviates. The attention given to characters like TJ, who has sickle-cell anemia and has dreams of becoming a comic artist, would be easier to admire if his function in the plot wasn’t solely to use computers, provide comic relief, and explain slang to Scudder. In a more daring move, Frank allows us to see the murderers on their downtime, a promising crib from The Vanishing, but they’re only marginally developed as characters, and the tactic ends up watering down the miniscule menace the film originally exudes. And the film’s detailing of the tragic incident that caused Scudder to hang it up as a policeman and quit the drink never resonates enough to give Frank’s cutting between the final showdown and a recitation of AA’s 12 steps the emotional impact he’s clearly looking for.
In trying to reimagine the Spade-Marlow archetype in the modern age, Frank renders his crime story a woefully scatterbrained ensemble piece, remarkable only for the multitudes of subplots that the writer-director introduces. Though Scudder shows a determined dedication to the rehabilitation of his alcoholism, the flippant attitude Frank shows toward Kristo’s smack-addled brother (Boyd Holbrook) and his bid for redemption only softens his concern with the struggles of addiction. This, however, pales in comparison to the utterly hypocritical take on the dangers of gun violence. After discovering a gun in TJ’s backpack, Scudder goes the long way to remark that he might as well blow his brains out, as if that’s the only way gun violence ends. This speech is one of the more memorable parts of the film, but its intentions are washed away as guns end up saving Scudder, as he uses his old sidearm to wound one of the killers and finish off the other one, while the decision to not use a gun ultimately leads to at least one major character’s death. Guns are something of a necessary evil to Frank, just as his wonky, familiar moralism and tinny humanism seems to be necessities to cover up the lack of narrative invention and visual style in this messy mass of pulp.