New York City is often treated as a character in any film it appears in. It’s always instantly recognizable as well. With how singular NYC is to audiences, it can be a challenge to make the city seem like it’s the filmmaker’s own creation. Writer/Director Scott Frank has just done that. His city is distinct from other cinematic presentations in how unforgiving and grimy it is. Another interesting aspect is that the police seem to have no part of this city, only interacting with the story once and having hardly any impact on Scudder’s investigation. It’s refreshing in that way, and further reinforces the image of how haunting and disparate this film’s NYC is. It hardly ever seems to stop raining here, and has an effective aesthetic effect on the bleakness of this city. At one point I just uttered out “Jesus…” in response to how brutal and unsettling a place the film had just gone to. This film would be almost unbearable in how unforgiving of a reality it presents if it weren’t so engaging too.
The plot follows retired cop and unlicensed private detective Matt Scudder (Liam Neeson) as he is hired by drug trafficker Kenny (Dan Stevens) to find out who kidnapped and killed his wife. As he digs deeper, he delves into the seedy underworld of New York City and discovers these men have kidnapped and killed before and will do so again.
Liam Neeson gets the kind of role that lets him have the best of both worlds. Yes, he gets to kick some ass, threaten some baddies over the phone and act out moments of pure bad-assery. But he still gets to really prove he hasn’t lost a step in just what an incredible actor he is along the way to becoming Hollywood’s most bankable action star. There’s a weariness that hangs over him in this film, and to watch it affect each action of his is a testament to just how gripping of an actor Neeson is. His revelatory backstory would have been more effective had it come unexpectedly to the audience and not been put in the trailer for the film. Still though, Neeson carries the guilt of Scudder well, seemingly a product of this film’s NYC. The last look on his face, is that relief and peace or just more sorrow and guilt? Neeson presents it as possibly all of them.
Dan Stevens doesn’t get quite as much to do in this film as his other new release The Guest, but he still proves to be a formidable screen presence as drug trafficker Kenny. I haven’t watched Downton Abbey, so this weekend was my first introduction to him. I like what I’m seeing, and look forward to seeing what he does next. Boyd Holbrook gets what is largely a stereotypical type of role as junkie Peter, the brother of Kenny, but gives a convincing performance as one. The dynamic between Peter and Kenny is compelling even if never given the proper amount of focus. Brian “Astro” Bradley gets a role that is largely stereotypical as TJ, the homeless young man that becomes somewhat of a partner to Scudder. Still, Bradley is convincing despite the some of the clichés forced upon his character – you wonder with all that’s been going on the past month if what people need to see is another young black man portrayed as a wannabe thug. The chemistry between Bradley and Neeson is winning even if written as trite in some scenes. An interesting thing about the film is that Frank makes no mystery of who the villains are to the audience, and David Harbour and Adam David Thompson certainly prove as chilling. I knew Harbour could play a real prick, but I didn’t know he could also be convincingly terrifying.
Scott Frank has spent most of his career being one of Hollywood’s best-kept secrets. He has written Out of Sight, Minority Report as well as co-writing The Wolverine. His only directorial credit before this film came with the enjoyable little 2007 thriller The Lookout. He retains an impressive control over the tension of this film, and with Director of Photography Mihai Malaimare Jr.’s bleak cinematography casts a great sense of dread over each frame. Newcomer composer Carlos Rafael Rivera proves competent at complimenting the tension of the film in his subdued score. Frank has proven that he is adept at creating a real sense of atmosphere and character, and hopefully we won’t have to wait another 7 years for him to direct a film.
This is a film that feels refreshing in the fact that there aren’t any good guys, only guys who are a lesser sort of bad. Each character seems to be a product of the dismal NYC that Frank has created. Yet even in a film as grim as this, he still finds great moments of humor, some involving the interactions between Scudder and TJ and others at just how badass Scudder can be. He does go out of the film’s way in order to have Neeson have one last throwdown, but the end result is satisfying and grim, in line with the rest of the film. When the final shot comes, it becomes clear that the Tombstones mentioned in the title may not be the ones that served as the setting of a pivotal scene, but actually something much larger and universal.