"A Walk Among the Tombstones" is the creepiest film I've seen in quite some time, and that's not meant as a compliment.
This old-school thriller starring Liam Neeson as an unlicensed private investigator trying to right the world's wrongs has a very modern emphasis on the graphic torture and mutilation of women. It may make me behind the times and out of touch to say it, but how did we get to a place where watching that kind of activity is considered entertainment?
In a movie universe where torture porn maestro Eli Roth (whose reprehensible-sounding films I hope never to see) has never lacked for articulate critical support, both writer-director Scott Frank and novelist Lawrence Block (whose book is the source of the most gruesome scenes) will likely wonder what I'm making a fuss about.
Block is one of the mystery/private eye genre's most respected names, and Frank is a gifted screenwriter ("Get Shorty," "Out of Sight,") whose debut feature as a director was 2007's excellent "The Lookout." In their eyes, I'm sure, the few minutes of explicit horror used to get and hold an audience's attention are the kind of upping of the ante necessary to satisfy what the culture wants and the market demands.
I'm aware that future torture-besotted generations may look back on my objections with the kind of genial disdain we reserve for people who railed against rock 'n' roll, but I can't help that. I don't live in the future, I live in the here and now, and for me those kinds of horrendous moments are simply unacceptable.
"Tombstone's" descent into the pornography of violence is especially disturbing because it comes clothed in the garments of a traditional PI film. More than capably written and directed by Frank and well acted by star Neeson and his able supporting cast, this is the kind of film that invokes Sam Spade's name not once but twice.
Though the bulk of "Tombstones" takes place in 1999, it starts with a flashback to 1991, which is where we meet NYPD's Matt Scudder (Neeson), a bearded, long-haired detective with a major drinking problem. We watch the unfolding of the gun battle that became the major crisis of his life, though we aren't told until later exactly why it led to his leaving the force.
Cut to 1999 and a clean-shaven Scudder is eight years sober and a stalwart member of AA. He works as an unlicensed investigator, which means he solves problems for grateful people who give him cash as a thank-you. All strictly legal.
Scudder is approached by Peter Kristo (Boyd Holbrook), a recovering junkie who goes to Scudder's AA meeting. Peter says that his brother Kenny (Dan Stevens, once upon a time "Downton Abbey's" Matthew Crawley) has need of his services, and so he does.
Kenny, not to put too fine a point on it, is a drug trafficker whose wife was kidnapped. Kenny paid the ransom, but the perpetrators not only chopped her body into tiny pieces (which we see) but left behind an audio tape of her being attacked and tortured (which we hear). That's bad enough, but things will get worse.
Scudder, not a fan of drug dealers, takes the case with reluctance, which is kind of the way Neeson took the role. As the actor told The Times, "I had a knee-jerk reaction because I thought, 'This is "Taken" territory, more talking to bad guys on telephones.'"
Fortunately, Scudder turns out to be a much more modulated character than "Taken's" Bryan Mills, and Neeson, despair always in his eyes, is quite expert at projecting Scudder's been-there air of moody melancholy.
A shoe-leather kind of guy who's so retrograde he does most of his work by walking around and talking with people face to face, Scudder chats up his share of New York characters, including an eccentric groundskeeper (Olafur Darri Olafsson) at a cemetery where yet another sliced and diced woman is found.
Aided by an improbable sidekick, a homeless teenager named T.J. (Brian "Astro" Bradley), Scudder discovers a connection between the victims and we're soon given the chance to witness even more torture. Especially disturbing is a flashback in which we see and hear the terror of a woman who's about to be chopped up followed by loving close-ups of the instruments the tormentors (played by David Harbour and Adam David Thompson) used for the terrible deeds. Truly this stuff is so unpleasant it makes you want to stay home, lock the door and never come out
One of the last things on the screen in "A Walk Among the Tombstones" is the American Humane Society's notification that no animals were harmed in any of the film's scenes. If women had a powerful advocacy group policing how they're portrayed on screen, or at the very least the support of a rating system with the integrity to give this the NC-17 it deserves, wouldn't we all be better off?
'A Walk Among the Tombstones'
MPAA rating: R, for strong violence, disturbing images, language and brief nudity
Running time: 1 hour, 54 minutes
Playing: In general release