The new Liam Neeson movie A Walk Among the Tombstones, which opens in theaters nationwide on Sept. 19, spools out its opening credits over a montage of shots of a beautiful woman. They're all close-ups, and coyly eroticized, providing glimpses of pale skin and blonde hair. It looks like it could be a sex scene, right until the final image of her face, where we see she has tape over her mouth and there's a tear rolling down her cheek.
It's a neat encapsulation of what's to come — women die horribly in order for men to avenge them soulfully in A Walk Among the Tombstones. Not exactly a new pattern in movies or on TV, but there's something about starkness of that divide in this new film, which is written and directed by Scott Frank (The Lookout), that's particularly striking. And, frankly, a little gross.
Adapted from the novel of the same name by crime-writing legend Lawrence Block, A Walk Among the Tombstones is a detective story of the old school, one of a series about an alcoholic ex-cop turned unlicensed private investigator named Matthew Scudder. It's set in a gritty, dark, and resolutely drab 1999 New York, in which characters talk about Y2K and cell phones aren't in regular use. It's a world that's unrepentantly masculine, which is fine, but it also uses women, or rather their deaths, as dramatic fuel, which really isn't. The film may be a semi-period piece, but in 2014, you should have to choose — either write women as actual characters or leave them out. To use them solely as photogenic dead or soon-to-be dead bodies is to render them less than human.
Your tipping point on depictions of violence against women may vary. Here's mine: Women really do get attacked, beaten, mutilated, permanently injured, raped, and killed, and removing representations of those facts from on screen won't change that. But when your story includes women only so much as their grisly deaths make the men in their lives mad or sad, well, then you're just turning them into meat — literally, in this case, as Scudder is hired to track down a pair of sadistic killers (David Harbour and Adam David Thompson) who kidnap women, extract ransom money from their loved ones, then leave their victims' dismembered bodies in plastic-wrapped piles. The men they target are all involved in the higher echelons of the drug trade, including Kenny Kristo (Dan Stevens), the Brooklyn dealer who first requests Scudder's help to catch the guys who took and murdered his wife.
The women in A Walk Among the Tombstones, as much as they exist, are shown either in angelic remove — a bright remembered smile, a set of portraits on the wall, a particularly disturbing slow-motion walk — or screaming hopelessly for their lives. This is a movie about men, from the shrewd, hard-bitten, but good-hearted Scudder to the distraught Kenny and his addict brother Howie (Eric Nelsen), from the sadistic roomies Ray (Harbour) and Albert (Thompson) to the precocious homeless kid named TJ (Astro) to whom Scudder reluctantly warms.
They may be a rough-and-tumble crowd, but they're all depicted as fully formed people; even the creepy graveyard worker (Ólafur Darri Ólafsson) Scudder runs across during his investigation has a personality, a history, a life that's transmitted in his few scenes. There's no requirement that every story have strong female characters, or characters of color, or any other typically underrepresented group, though there's a pressing need to see more of them on screen. But when your women exist only as emotional leverage for the men, well, you're making them as disposable as your villains.
There are things to recommend in A Walk Among the Tombstones. Neeson is enjoyable, as always, in a quieter and more pensive tough-guy mode than the Taken films — his recent, golden run of weathered leading roles continues. It travels to corners of New York that don't often make it to screen — rooftop pigeon coops and believably crummy Hell's Kitchen apartments, empty Red Hook streets and Greenwood Cemetery in Brooklyn.
But those elements just couldn't, for me, balance out the lingering unpleasantness of how A Walk Among the Tombstones was telling its story. It's hollow pulp trying to pass off gloom as thematic weight, a story that creates monsters and takes pleasure in letting them run loose so that it can end on a note bemoaning what a terrible world it is.