A Walk Among The Tombstones, a mostly spoiler-free review

I went to the midnight showing of A Walk Among The Tombstones last night (henceforth #AWATT), the new movie starring Liam Neeson based on the book by Lawrence Block.

Total disclosure, this movie is based on one of my favorite books, in one of my favorite series.

I’m not going to be unbiased here. There are a handful of series that are close to my heart, series that I frequently re-read. The Matthew Scudder series of books by Lawrence Block is one of them, and #AWATT is, in my opinion, one of the best books in the series, closely followed by A Dance at the Slaughterhouse.

I’m saying that I probably read the book this movie is based on over thirty times before they announced a movie was in production. That makes this a weird movie for me to see on the screen.

So, how was it?

Short answer, I loved it, but I think this is going to tank on the big screen in this short-attention-span Expendables action flick era.

I hope I’m wrong. Maybe I’m selling audiences short, maybe there are a lot more people out there that will enjoy this movie than I think.

Everyone I’ve talked to at work today has taken everything I’ve said and wanted to watch it even more, so either I’m too damn cynical, or I should have more faith in people.

So, why should you see it? What does this movie bring that you haven’t already had before?

This is a damn good thriller, a powerful character study, an immersive period piece and a detective saga grounded in real people with real attitudes and motivations.

Why do I think it’s not going to do well in theaters?

One word; expectations.

When talking to friends that were looking forward to it, people who haven’t read the books, most of them seemed to assume this would be a Taken clone.

Okay, so what does that mean? Taken was a great film, I loved it, most people loved it, so why does that expectation hurt this film? Am I saying this isn’t as good as Taken?

No, I’m saying this is a completely different film from Taken and it’s not coming from the same place.

What was Taken? It was a film starring a flawed father superhero badass killing his way through a thousand cardboard villains on his way to an ultimate revenge-fantasy and princess-saving fulfillment.

Was it satisfying? Yes it was, and for me a large part of that was the character portrayal by Liam Neeson. I loved Taken. It’s a great film. Solid action, great suspense.

So, what is #AWATT that makes it so different?

Two things.

First, the characters are not cardboard cutouts, not a single one. All of them are based on Lawrence Block’s novel, and all of his characters are seemingly real people, with a lifetime of history, complex motivations and unfathomable backstory. There may be and probably is a lot to see on the surface, just like your initial impressions when meeting anyone.

Look a little closer, see how people act to others, what people do, the decisions they make and you’ll find a lot more is going on here. A lot of subtlety in the characters.

One of the strengths of this movie is that it isn’t about a superhero, flawed or not. Matthew Scudder is not a hero, he’s not an anti-hero, he’s not an unstoppable badass, and he’s not possessed of some indomitable will that is more than human. He is exactly human, and he’s fucked up a lot in his life and he knows it. He’s trying to be a man, and be himself, and not fuck up, and get through each day one day at a time because that’s how life throws them at you.

So a large portion of this movie is a subtle character study with a powerfully nuanced performance by Liam Neeson. I don’t know that modern audiences can handle a movie where more than 5 minutes goes by between gunfights in crowded alleys. Just saying.

The second thing is, this is a period piece. When they see this, the audiences are going to lose their shit.

This is a thriller and has a ton of action, but it doesn’t follow the modern formula of filming in foreign countries for the cheaper costs and tax breaks (I’m looking at you, A Good Day To Die Hard).

A Walk Among the Tombstones is a period piece set in New York City in 1999, and if you think a movie set only 15 years ago can’t be a period piece, you’ve got a rude awakening coming.

A lot has changed in the last fifteen years, and I know I haven’t noticed quite so much because I’ve been living with the changes taking them as they come.

This movie, this is a movie in love with New York, but the love isn’t blind. It’s all encompassing. It shows you New York City of 1999 exactly as it was, and watching it, the cinematography, the music, the images and graffiti and talk and hair and just… just everything sucks you in and you are in 1999 New York City.

I can’t even really grasp the effort this film must have taken to achieve this. These are not generic locations, every place is distinctive, every setting possesses a rich character that makes it truly unique. But it’s not glossy, it’s not slick. It is brutally honest with how crappy life can be in the city at the bottom level, making your living day to day, side by side with those in glamorous homes.

It also, if you’re paying attention, draws subtle attention to how a shithole in New York can be more expensive than living anywhere else. You see one apartment Scudder visits, and it looks like a shithole a college student would put up with at a flyover state school, and then you take a closer look at the furniture and decorations, and realize this is a shithole that is probably a million bucks a year and the guy is decorating it accordingly.

The setting nails the mood.

I think about the action and the story and how powerful but subtle everything is, and then I think of a modern audience watching a character study period piece with bursts of action, and I have to wonder how many are going to get it?

I don’t know. I haven’t looked at a single review, been too busy working, and writing this out to get my thoughts in order.

I really liked it. I have always thought the strengths of the Matthew Scudder books was that they feel like slices of real life, windows into a world of real people thrust into bad shit, and that the books linger lovingly over a New York City that lives in brilliant color in Lawrence Block’s mind, and he lets me come to visit once in a while.

Will you like it? I have no idea. I hope you will. If you’ve been reading my blog a while and like some of the same things I do, share some of the same attitudes I’ve shared over the years, then I think you will.

I hope you give it a chance.

For me, all of the heart and soul of the book was there. It was well worth a midnight showing on a work night.

For fans of the books, you should be excited to know that while Elaine wasn’t in this movie, they fully developed a different character relationship so they left it perfectly poised to introduce Elaine and her full story from A Ticket To The Boneyard if they do a sequel.

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