In an age of spectacle it’s always interesting to see how grounded stories are brought to the screen. Following the post-modern boom of Tarantino and company throughout the 90’s and beyond it’s become very easy for these urban tales to become steeped in self-acknowledging humour. Thrillers and mysteries are filled with winks and nods, so much that they defy classification by genre as a standard. The latest Liam Neeson vehicle, A Walk Among the Tombstones, is happy to embrace its roots and although not above some minor knowing meta-text, it is a hard and true noir, as one would logically have evolved in this day and age.
Set against the backdrop of the Y2K panic of the end of the 20th century A Walk Among the Tombstones follows private investigator Matthew Scudder (Neeson) as he hunts the kidnappers of a drug traffickers wife. Having scored the job through a fellow addict in an AA meeting and making use of a tech-savvy teenage vagrant, Scudder must navigate the hollow sprawl of New York City balancing his own boundaries against the worth of those he associates with on the case.
To distinguish A Walk Among the Tombstones from the neo-noir fad that has become a prevalent substitute for the hard-boiled noir of early cinema is relatively clear to define; Tombstones neither ascribes nor attempts to emulate the stylings or the artifice of older pictures. It’s a film shot in the steady contemporary manner of a contemporary non-genre picture with environments permeated by a visible coldness in temperature that builds atmosphere distinctly separate from the backlit, sharply focused predecessors that built up the image of noir. There’s little of the acerbic and witty dialogue of Hammett or Chandler’s literature prevalent with a running joke being that Scudder struggles to keep up with the slang of any other generation running counter to the rich but baseless dialogue many copycats have utilised over the years. What Tombstones does hold onto is a dark grit, accentuated by an exhausted lead in Neeson and unrelenting circumstance. As with most good noir the world sells the darkness and 1999’s New York stands out as a suitably distressful setting for a messy tale of kidnapping, bloodshed and horror.
Despite the genre indulgence, A Walk Among the Tombstones is far from perfect. Although the sound design has the punchiest gunshots to echo through cinema screens this year, the score is implemented obtusely lous as if to ensure that a largely forgettable orchestra is noticed. Although not an especially long film, certain scenes (and even entire characters) feel present solely for the intention of gracelessly unloading exposition, despite some subversive integration into the narrative. Perhaps as a result of Tombstones adherence to substance rather than the style of noir the entire affair can veer all too frequently from dark to dour, leaving the experience balancing somewhere between melancholy and miserable.
Reimaginings, these days, are a dime a dozen and with the idea that nothing is original anymore comes an endless stream of writers and directors scrambling to put a fresh spin on old ideas. A Walk Among the Tombstones does no such thing, content to stand as its own experience. As a noir it’s not the flashiest or most original but for those who can tolerate the bleak coldness of it all, it may prove the most fitting evolution of the genre for this generation.
Although perhaps a little too miserable for its own good, A Walk Among the Tombstones is bolstered by an unrelenting commitment to its noir roots and the most in depth performance from Liam Neeson in the last couple of years.
A Walk Among the Tombstones is out now in wide release.