How A Walk Among The Tombstones Gets The Apocalypse Right (Even If It Never Happens)

Monday, October 13th, 2014

In his new book Approaching the End: Imagining Apocalypse in American FilmPeter Labuza discusses how noir is a fundamental mode of apocalyptic cinema. In this post, he discusses a recent neo-noir with an undeniable apocalyptic tone.

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If stakes matter in a movie, nothing creates high stakes like the end of the world—or at least it would appear so. Do we really care if John Cusack is going to get that metallic ark working in2012, or if Nicholas Cage is going to land that plane in Left Behind? Not really, even if both of these films introduce the families of the protagonist to add something “personal” to their stories. Using the apocalypse in a film can often be a dangerous proposition. It’s so big that it can threaten to turn everything else in a film meaningless. But it can also function as a possibility that lingers in the background, adding an eerie dimension to a film—one that forces the viewer to look inward as much as outward.

Who would think than the best apocalyptic film of the year then would be a Liam Neeson crime thriller? Scott Frank’s A Walk Among The Tombstones is a troubling and brutal film, featuring Neeson as detective Matthew Scudder in the adaptation of Laurence Block’s 1992 novel (one of over a dozen works to feature the character). Scudder is your typical noir protagonist: former NYPD with a guilty and violent past, now in the private detective business on cases not fit for print. In adapting the novel to the screen, Frank has chosen to update it, but only partially, to 1999. The temporal shift allows two things. First, it keeps Scudder’s character distinctly analog in his methods, which is contrasted through an unlikely friendship with a tech-savvy African American teenager named TJ (Brian “Astro” Bradley).

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Second, but more importantly, it allows for a very well remembered apocalyptic event to cloud over the gray skies of Brooklyn: Y2K. Frank never overplays what initially comes off as a silly plot device. After all, Y2K became a punch line after the terror it caused turned out to be for nothing. But Frank works it in as a call-response type of narrative, the same way Fritz Lang uses nuclear trauma in The Big Heat, or Terrence Malick uses the Christian apocalypse in Days of Heaven.

Subsequently, no one will mistake A Walk Among The Tombstones for being anything but neo-noir. Block’s dialogue, as adapted by Frank, is terse, ugly, and direct, and Scudder’s investigation only leads to the most grotesque of violence: a series of women who have been raped, murdered, and mutilated into pieces. “People are worried about the wrong things,” remarks David Harbour* as one of the malicious killers, noting a Y2K Panic advertisement in the newspaper. It’s the singular moment in the film where the relationship between the noir narrative and the apocalyptic narrative collide. Otherwise, the threat appears in background as billboards, at times literally hanging over the film.

tombstones2-e1413206891864What makes this matter within the narrative, however, is that A Walk Among The Tombstonesuses noir as something beyond a stylistic touch. Frank’s film is almost unwatchable due to the sadism toward its female characters—not because of what’s shown, but the way his tone is unflinching. And while it is certainly stylized (thanks to the fantastic visual design by The MasterDP Mihai Malaimare Jr.), it is also more grounded in reality, especially through the very accurate location shooting in Brooklyn. Frank’s mise-en-scene is precise and direct in how it conveys the information, aided through the editing taking notice of the very specific beats in expositional sequences (former Frank collaborator Steven Soderbergh assisted). Additionally, Neeson, while certainly a “badass” in the vein of his recent string of B-movie thrillers, is more stern than usual, balancing himself between an unemotional machine and a very human concern.

Instead of just creating the sheen of noir, Frank captures the brutality of an amoral universe- as Scudder learns, even though there are villains at the center of this investigation, there are few worth saving. He realizes that the people he is helping may not deserve it, but he has a right to fight for decency, paralleled by his own attempts to better himself through an Alcoholics Anonymous program. The film integrates his back story through the final sequence, cutting between Scudder reciting the 12-steps at the AA meeting in the past, which suggests redemption. What he realizes, however, is that there is no solution—the narrative ends with blood, and Y2K still might come nonetheless….

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This is why apocalyptic narratives and noir work so well together. In disaster films that are melodramatic in structure, there’s a belief that human goodness can prove our decency and show our will to survive. When it comes to noir, it’s about placing us in an amoral landscape, where nothing seems to offer a good solution except the end. Scudder may live to see another day, and he may be able to redeem TJ and set him on the right path. But as the last shot suggests, while these two can hide in a safe enclosed space, it’s a hellish world out there.

Order Approaching the End now!

*Correction 10/14/2014: This quote was originally misattributed to Dan Stevens.