Friday, October 03, 2014

On the Wagon

Liam Neeson in A Walk Among the Tombstones

Liam Neeson, now in his sixties, is an unlikely candidate for action hero super-stardom, but that's where his career finds itself these days. He fills a void formerly occupied by Clint Eastwood, I guess. A Walk Among the Tombstones (2014, directed by Scott Frank) will only further Neeson's career as a cinematic tough guy, even as it marginally humanizes that cinematic anima. It's more Tightrope than Dirty Harry, if you get my drift, with a salting of Unforgiven. It's also an expansion of director Scott Frank's career as one of the preeminent makers of crime cinema. It's ambitious, I'll give it that.

The story here finds ex-cop Matthew Scudder working as an unlicensed private investigator. Scudder is a recovering alcoholic, and the things he did under the influence of the sauce haunt him even years after he entered AA. Scudder is approached by one of his fellow recovering addicts to take on a case. The man's brother, is a drug dealer named Kenny Kristo, and his wife has been kidnapped. He doesn't ask Scudder to be the bag man. The exchange of ransom has already taken place and Kristo's wife returned in pieces. He wants Scudder to find the men responsible so he can take revenge. Scudder declines the job, but is sucked in when it after Kristo plays him a tape recording of his wife being tortured and killed, and when it becomes clear that someone is targeting the loved-ones of criminals, including at least one woman who was an undercover cop. Meanwhile, Scudder meets a street kid named TJ who wants to be a detective. Scudder likes him and takes him under his wing to humor him, but TJ proves useful, especially given that Scudder doesn't use a computer and TJ does. The case comes to a head when the daughter of a Russian gangster is abducted and Scudder is asked to handle the negotiation. The game of cat and mouse between Scudder and the killers then begins in earnest...

There was something gnawing at me when I walked to my car after seeing A Walk Among the Tombstones. I mean, in purely formal terms, the movie is pretty good. It's a cut above most of the action wank that Liam Neeson finds himself in these days. It's a hard boiled crime film, and I'm a complete sucker for hard boiled. I've read some of Lawrence Block's Matthew Scudder novels and I've greatly enjoyed them. I drove home, it occurred to me that there are only two women in the film with any substantial dialogue--the librarian who introduces Scudder to TJ, the street kid who helps him, and the nurse who explains TJ's sickle cell anemia. Neither of them have a name. Both of them are essentially background noise. All of the other women in the film are victims. None of them have meaningful dialogue. This film is as masculine as they come, and that kind of bothers me. Violence toward women is the prime motivating force of this film's plot and the filmmakers seem entirely uninterested in examining the systemic misogyny that that fact suggests. Indeed, the rape/murder that takes place during the film's opening credits are aestheticized almost to the point of fetishism. The function of misogyny in this film is to provide a character arc for a man struggling with man problems. Given the skill and ambition brought to bear on this film, this is a grave disappointment, if you'll pardon the pun.

Liam Neeson and Brian Bradley in A Walk Among the Tombstones

As I say, in purely formal terms, A Walk Among the Tombstones is pretty good. Matthew Scudder is not the killing machine one finds in the Taken films. He has very real demons, articulated in the opening sequence, set nine years before the film's main action, in which Scudder's career as a cop comes to an abrupt end following a shootout with a couple of thieves who have the misfortune of robbing Scudder's favorite bar. "Were you afraid?" TJ asks him about this shootout. "I was drunk," he replies. Substance abuse is the major theme underlying not just Scudder's character arc, but also Peter and Kenny Kristo and the entire criminal underworld in which Scudder moves. There's a hint in the subtext of this film that punishing addicts is morally wrong, though the film abstracts this idea to an extreme given that the wrath brought down upon drug culture is wielded by a pair of serial killers. The film uses addiction for its structure during the film's climax, in which Frank orchestrates his action and suspense beats in crosscut with a recitation of the twelve steps AA espouses. This is less ironic than the baptism scene in The Godfather, its obvious cinematic ancestor, but it's a good piece of styling, and of a piece with its characters.

Dan Stevens and Liam Neeson in A Walk Among the Tombstones

The moral ambiguity built into this film's cast provides unexpected nuance to the story. Audiences have been so trained to view drug dealers and Russian gangsters as thugs and monsters that it's a shock to see them humanized in the way this film humanizes them. This is partially accomplished by setting these characters apposite something far, far worse. When one of this film's serial killers deadpans that, "People are afraid of the wrong things," there are layers of irony involved. I wish that this film's villains weren't such "movie" serial killers, but I do like the indifference of the act when one of them turns on the other. The film communicates that these are hollow men, inscrutable, beyond the ken of normal human beings. "Normal" human beings including addicts, drug dealers, gangsters, and disgraced ex-cops. If this film is ultimately valuable as art, it's because it has insight along these lines. I wish it had some kind of insight into the other half of the human race, though. As it is, it's half blind.

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