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Non-Review Review: A Walk Among the Tombstones

A Walk Among the Tombstones is an oddly nostalgic serial killer film.

The movie is an adaptation of Lawrence Block’s novel of the same name. Block originally published A Walk Among the Tombstones in 1992, around the time that pop culture’s fascination with serial killers was building to a crescendo. Thomas Harris had released Red Dragon and The Silence of the Lambs to universal acclaim. Jonathan Demme’s film adaptation of The Silence of the Lambs had managed to sweep the Oscars, despite the handicap of a February 1991 release.

Dead letters...

Dead letters…

Scott Frank’s feature film adaptation moves the action forward to 1999, towards the tail end of pop culture’s interest in serial killers. Morgan Freeman’s career in serial killer films offers perhaps the best illustration of the state of the genre. By this point, Freeman had already moved on from 1995’s stylish se7en towards 1997’s efficient Kiss the Girls and was on the cusp of 2001’s unnecessary Along Came a Spider. The serial killer’s stock was falling, and the serial killer would soon be replaced by another bogeyman.

This shift in the story’s setting makes it feel like A Walk Among the Tombstones is a funeral ode towards the serial killer.

Lives are on the line...

Lives are on the line…

On a rather superficial level, A Walk Among the Tombstones looks like a fairly typical Liam Neeson thriller. The actor is playing a character brought in when a female character is kidnapped, recalling Taken. He is a washed up law enforcement official, as in Non-Stop. The movie even features the now-obligatory “Liam Neeson threatens the bad guy over the telephone” sequence that seems written into his contract.

However, these comparisons are superficial at best. A Walk Among the Tombstones is more clearly a serial killer thriller film, with our hero racing against time to stop sadistic predators stalking New York on the cusp of the new millennium. The film commits pretty heavily to this, with an eerie opening sequence and a scene of stalking set against the delightfully unnerving soundtrack of Donovan’s iconic Atlantis. It is as if Liam Neeson has wandered into a nineties Morgan Freeman film.

"Hey kids, this is called a cassette player. It's like a slower, crapper iPod."

“Hey kids, this is called a cassette player. It’s like a slower, crapper iPod.”

To be fair, A Walk Among the Tombstones is wryly aware of the serial killer’s diminished importance in the pop culture landscape. During the nineties, it seemed that there was a slew of high-profile serial killer films running the gamut from prestige pieces to punch-the-number thrillers. While the genre has never quite gone away, it has fade from view somewhat. In 2011, Slate felt confident enough to declare that “serial killers just aren’t the sensation they used to be.”

There are a number of reasons why this might be the case. A Walk Among the Tombstones alludes somewhat clumsily towards this in an awkwardly framed shot towards the end of the film, pulling back from our protagonist’s apartment to reveal that the Twin Towers are still standing. Despite the fact that the movie made no secret of its setting, it is a powerful image that effectively reminds the audience that serial killers are somewhat trite in this era of global terrorism and random spree killings.

"There is absolutely no reason why I have singled you out in my pursuit of a serial killer."

“There is absolutely no reason why I have singled you out in my pursuit of a serial killer.”

The movie’s setting in 1999 could easily be a matter of plot expedience. After all, mobile phones – and particularly iPhones – tend to make plotting these sorts of films a lot harder. These sorts of stories become a lot harder in the era of instant trace and “find my phone.” Even with the 1999 setting, it seems to be stretching to suggest that Scudder has to visit a library to conduct his research. However, the setting also feels consciously nostalgic, as if the movie is marking one of the last points the serial killer seemed so scary.

“People are afraid of the wrong things,” one of the movie’s serial killers reflects over breakfast, leafing through a paper warning about the dangers of Y2K. Fear is still a potent currency. Just because people seem less concerned about serial killers than they were in the nineties does not mean that anybody feels safer. Serial killers have just been shuffled into the background to make way for a new generation of bogeymen haunting the public psyche.

In his defence, it is set in the nineties...

In his defence, it is set in the nineties…

In that respect, A Walk Among the Tombstones seems almost quaint. It plays like a period piece unfolding on the very edge of the popular memory. New York in 1999 is close enough that most of the audience will be able to recall it; it is almost certainly within the living memory of the audience. However, it is also distant enough that it feels like an entirely different world. A Walk Among the Tombstones is a movie that feels like it is trading in a nostalgic brand of anxiety.

There’s an endearing paradox here. With distance, the fears and anxieties of the nineties are almost welcome; stepping back into the nightmares have been cycled out of the popular consciousness feels like easing on an old pair of slippers. There’s something comforting in knowing that they still fit. You can almost believe there was a time when Chris Carter believed “serial killer of the week” was a sustainable model for Millennium, his show coming off The X-Files.

New York, New York...

New York, New York…

No matter how much times may have changed, the serial killer makes for a convincing bogeyman. A Walk Among the Tombstones offers what feels like a “greatest hits” version of nineties pop culture serial killers. There is very little to differentiate these two sadists from any of the other serial killers who have popped up in films, television shows and novels. They are weirdly functional. They kidnap, mutilate and ransom their victims; they make taunting phone calls to our hero.

Matthew Scudder is really the quintessential protagonist for a story like this – a cynical jerk with a heart of gold, a recovering alcoholic dealing with a trauma that leads him to seek redemption. The movie even overlays his twelve-step recovery programme with the climax. It is a move that feels more than a little pretentious, but is delivered so solemnly and seriously that it’s hard not to feel a little impressed. A Walk Among the Tombstones is not particularly clever or original, but it is very earnest in its nostalgia.

To dine for...

To dine for…

Naturally, there are limitations. As an example of the genre, A Walk Among the Tombstones feels decidedly middle-of-the-road, counting on the fact that there haven’t been too many recent high-profile serial killer thrillers that would tower over it. Liam Neeson is solid and reliable, and David Harbour makes for a suitably unpleasant antagonist, but Scudder and the rest of the cast feel rather two dimensional.

There are other problems, some of which come with the territory. Feeling like a nostalgic tribute to a dying genre, A Walk Among the Tombstones inherits a few of the flaws typical of these sorts of films. For example, our killers are coded as a gay couple, but without any of the care that The Silence of the Lambs used to clarify Buffalo Bill was not an example of transphobia. There is something just a tad reactionary about the couple here; a sense that they were undoubtedly politically incorrect in the context of 1992, let alone 2014.

Up on the roof...

I’d say “up on the roof”, but that’d be a Robinson and Jerome reference…

It also doesn’t help that female characters exist as nothing but objects to be threatened or leveraged. Women are objects of desire, to be coveted and bartered. The major characters in A Walk Among the Tombstones are all men, with the supporting female characters targeted and victimised by our serial killers so that the major male characters can wreak their revenge. In fact, of the women who are not victimised, several are treated as red herrings – potential victims.

A Walk Among the Tombstones is an affectionate tribute to a genre that has been in decline for a number of years. It isn’t a radical reinvention or reconstruction, but instead a faithful recreation of what had once been an incredibly popular style of thriller. Warts and all.

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