In the Dark with Melanie Dishman: A Walk Among the Tombstones

In the Dark with Melanie Dishman: A Walk Among the Tombstones

This first adaptation of best selling author Lawrence Block’s series signals a possible franchise for star Liam Neeson as off-the-books private eye Matt Scudder. Set in the pre-Y2K ’90s, it is established in the opening scene that Scudder was an alcoholic NYPD detective until one of his stray bullets fired off during an attempted bar robbery strikes the wrong target with tragic consequences. Flash forward 10 years later, and he is now sober and spending a lot of time in AA meetings while working occasional jobs that fit his skill set.

An encounter at one of these meetings leads him to Kenny Kristo (Dan Stevens of “Downton Abbey”), a very successful drug dealer whose wife was kidnapped and murdered. The catch is Kenny paid the kidnappers, who then directed him to an abandoned car, where he found his wife in the trunk, her body cut into pieces. Reluctantly, Matt is drawn into the case, which turns out to be more than he bargained for when his research turns up possible DEA connections and two sadistic killers who have done this before and are going to do it again.

Written for the screen and directed by Scott Frank, this is a darkly drawn thriller that really benefits from tight direction, a sense of story, and some great location shoots in and around the Brooklyn area — including the famed Green-Wood Cemetery, where one of the key scenes takes place. Frank has captured some of the noirish qualities of the genre and even references some of the great detectives of those movies like Sam Spade and Frank Marlowe.

While some of Block’s characters failed to make it to the final script, one of them, a homeless boy named TJ (Brian “Astro” Bradley), does as Scudder’s sidekick who has a grasp of technology that eludes his elder. They meet in the public library and, to Frank’s credit, what could have become an overly emotional subplot is kept to the point as TJ helps Scudder work the case.

There are some standout spooky scenes in this movie that elevate to “better than good,” but it does run a little long. Most of this is justified by the way Scutter works, which is using the old wait-and-watch approach to detective work. He even tells one character that what makes a good detective is a “large bladder.” In a way the low tech approach — or no tech, because Scudder eschews cell phones, as well — is refreshing in its simplicity. In particular is the use of public pay phones; these play heavily into the plot and probably had to be dug out of the basement of the prop department.

In a crazy bit of dark humor, Frank even uses this old dinosaur of communication to interrupt a key scene when one of the characters runs out of quarters to continue a very tense call. Half the people that see this movie probably have no recollection of the importance loose change could play in a phone call.

The character of Scudder is a good choice for Neeson, who has seen a resurgence in the few years. This part is not as action-oriented as those in the “Taken” movies, but Scudder seems to fit him as well as a hand-tailored suit. David Harbour (“Newsroom”) stands out playing against his usual good guy parts as Ray, one of the killers who is creepy enough to give you the shivers.

With its sado-sexual angle, this earns its “R” rating, even though Frank wisely keeps most of this off screen. There is just enough to suggest how sick the two killers are, and that’s plenty. This restraint is one many reasons why this movie works on almost every level.