A Walk Among Tombstones: Working Through Penance (Movie Review)

Liam Neeson’s latest isn’t what you were expecting: it’s not Taken 3. Instead, it’s a violent, spiritual walk through the twelve steps, as retired Matthew Scudder (Neeson) works to make right a decade-old mistake by solving a series of abduction/murders in New York City just before Y2K. Adding to the nuance is the unexpected friendship Scudder strikes up with TJ (Brian “Astro” Bradley, Red Band Society, Earth to Echo), a down-on-his-luck kid seeking his way in the world. The film’s vibe is more Mystic River than Expendables but that gives us another side of Neeson to appreciate, and the film is better for it.

Taken from Lawrence Block’s novel of the same name, drug trafficker Kenny Kristo (Downton Abbey’s Daniel Stevens) hires Scudder, now working as a private investigator after leaving the police force, to track down the men who abducted and brutally murdered his wife. We soon find out that the two men are making a pattern of kidnapping the loved ones of known drug dealers, getting the ransom money, and sending back the women in parts. It’s not technically a whodunit, even if it feels that way, because it’s more about Scudder determining their motivations and drawing them out than figuring out who they are.

The moodiness of Dennis Lehane mixed with the familial feel of Edge of Darkness give this an ethereal feel even as the city is painted in shades of drab grey. It’s the color of Scudder’s soul: he’s been sober for eight years and he’s proud of that, but the wrestling inside his soul over what he’s done won’t leave him alone. Many of us can relate, because the truth is that repentance doesn’t always mean someone can forgive themselves.

Honestly, I went to see this for Neeson, not knowing much about the story or Block prior. X-Factor’s ‘Astro’ is a scene stealer, and his hilarious vibe gets channeled in spots [seriously, for outrageous exposure, check out the pilot of Red Band Society… right now]. What we haven’t seen a Neeson character do before is mentor someone; sure, he cared about his wife and daughter in Taken/Taken 2 but this is different. It’s like his Scudder wants to not only serve his own penance learned through Alcoholics Anonymous, but he also wants to keep TJ from making the same mistakes.

[As an aside, I’d have to give credit to Stevens: his role is dark, dark brooding. He… smolders. And having never seen an episode of Downton, I’m not talking McSteamy-ish smoldering, but real acting chops. Where did this guy come from? And how many more of his 2014 films can you catch before they leave the theater? The Guest… Night in the Museum 3… The Cobbler…]

This one isn’t for the faint of the heart- there’s a fair amount of torture for sure (but not as bad as Prisoners). But the way that the twelve steps are worked in, the way that confession and change and growth occur in Neeson’s Scudder? Those make this a wonderful, terrible ride, when you count the cost of his soul and how he’s ended up in this place. [It also makes me realize I need to check out Block’s other works, which are under-read in my fiction experience.] Go for the adventure, stay for the soul, but either way, buckle up.


About Jacob Sahms

I'm searching for hope in the midst of the storms, raising a family, pastoring a church, writing on faith and film, rooting for the Red Sox, and sleeping occasionally. Find me at ChristianCinema.com, Cinapse.co, and the brand new ScreenFish.net.
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