I really like Scott Frank. The writer of such sharp screenplays as Get Shorty (1995), Dead Again (1991), and Minority Report (2002), Frank has worked steadily in recent years on some popular movies, but has sadly not written anything I have been interested in for a long time now. And I really like Liam Neeson. From Darkman (1990) through Schindler’s List (1993) and Rob Roy (1995), he carved out a good niche playing larger than life figures with a hint of decay about them. But though he has worked steadily in recent years on many popular movies, little of it has interested me enough to actually go to the theatre. When Frank and Neeson teamed up to film the adaptation of Lawrence Block’s dark suspense story A Walk Among the Tombstones (2014), I felt we were all at somewhat of a crossroads. OK, maybe it was just a crossroads for me. I think their futures are pretty secure regardless. But would that future include me as a fan?
I’ll end the suspense right now. For those of us who worried that the new movie looked an awful lot like Taken 4, I can assure you that A Walk Among the Tombstones is light years ahead of those mindless moneymaking behemoths. It is darker, smarter, and has far more interesting characters. And despite the fact that it is a more serious portrait of evil than all the Takens combined, it is a lot funnier too. This doesn’t surprise me. One of the funniest stories I ever heard a screenwriter tell was Frank explaining how a producer once returned a draft of a script to him with the note “make it thirty percent funnier.” Frank counted up what he thought were the laugh lines, got out his calculator, and tried to figure out how many more laughs he would need to fulfill the request. Trust me, when you hear him tell it, it’s hilarious.
Tombstones is concerned with kidnapping. So is the new Argentine film Septimo (aka 7th Floor), from writer-director Patxi Amezcua. Both films have excellent set-ups and remain taut thrillers for most of their run-times. Tombstones is ultimately more successful, perhaps owing to the fact that Frank has been around a lot longer, and Amezcua is still relatively early in his career.
Tombstones begins with a sequence in which the alcoholic cop Matt Scudder tracks down some bad guys. Neeson is excellent in this opening, crafting a lumbering walk that reveals all you need to know about the character even if he barely utters a word. Something happens in that opening which causes him to go on the wagon. (And allow me here to bitch for a moment about trailers that give away too much. What happens in that opening is withheld until the second half of the story and would have been far more dramatic if I didn’t already know what it was thanks to the trailer. This happens with at least one other key moment in the movie. Please stop doing this. Thank you. End of bitching.) The rest of the movie will take place eight years later, in 1999, a fact which is referenced a few times and then hammered home in the final image. Scudder will get involved with some kidnapping victims and will eventually confront two sadistic psychopaths in a final confrontation. It’s not a unique premise. But Frank makes so many good decisions that it remains compelling throughout.
For one thing, he shows the investigative footwork in which Scudder engages. Though he gets kind of lucky early on, we don’t get the series of needle-in-a-haystack lucky coincidences that fill up the Taken franchise. For another, there is no huge surprise reveal about the bad guys. They don’t turn out to be the police chief and his son, or Scudder’s evil twin, or even Scudder himself. They are introduced in the early middle and then inserted more and more throughout. And though they are not developed much beyond the “sadistic psychopath” level, they are more interesting than most similar characters, precisely because they are not written as over-the-top cyborgs. This is particularly true of Adam David Thompson’s character Albert, who gets a really good, and really different, final line. (BTW, according to IMDB, Thompson currently has NINE movies listed as either complete or in post-production. This is one busy psychopath.)
Frank is also able to turn what could otherwise be a sentimental and maudlin character – TJ, a homeless teen befriended by Scudder – into a truly valuable part of the story. He does this primarily by making the character equal parts smart and funny and militant. (He refuses to drink the soda offered to him by the pleasant white waitress when Scudder buys him a meal, because he insists white America is intentionally poisoning the bodies of young black men by pushing unhealthy food on them.) Frank is helped greatly by the performance of Brian Bradley (aka Astro), a young actor who deserves a lot more work. And I love the fact that though TJ gets involved in the climax, Frank refuses to let him become a hostage or otherwise be used as some sort of bargaining chip or fodder. Taking the innocent with whom the jaded hero has become concerned and putting him in mortal danger has become such a cliché in these kinds of stories. Sometimes, it’s what a storyteller chooses NOT TO DO which makes or breaks the movie.
Finally, there is what I am assuming is an homage to John Boulting’s Brighton Rock (1947) which comes as one of the supporting characters dies and attempts to make a deathbed confession. I won’t reveal what happens, but I love that moment in Brighton Rock (even though I know some curmudgeons out there do not) and thus any movie that would recycle it scores some points in my book. In fact, about the only thing I don’t like in A Walk Among the Tombstones (aside from those damn trailers) comes at the very end when a tilt up reveals a rather artificial looking New York skyline, casually featuring the Twin Towers. The very look of the shot is out of place with the rest of the movie, so I’m not quite sure what Frank’s intention is there.
The opening shot of Amezcua’s Septimo is an aerial view of Buenos Aires as we hear a montage of news reports describing traffic and corruption and dissent. None of that seems to bother Sebastian, a high-priced criminal lawyer who is about to pull off a coup for his firm. But Sebastian’s day, and his life, is about to be upended when he goes to pick up his kids from his estranged wife’s apartment to take them to school. While he rides the elevator, his kids love to race him down the stairs from their 7th floor apartment. Along the way, they will disappear, and most of the remainder of the movie will reveal Sebastian’s and wife Delia’s frantic search for the kids.
Amezcua does a very good job setting this up, with a number of suspects and red herrings along the way. But what really puts the movie over is a first-rate performance by one-time soap opera star turned leading Argentine film actor, Ricardo Darin. Indeed, though this plays out as a whodunit, the real pleasure in Septimo is watching Sebastian’s journey from cocky asshole lawyer to desperate parent over the course of the first hour. There is generally good support from the other players in the movie, though Belen Rueda’s Delia has a little too much Bonnie Franklin in her for my taste. (Franklin played Ann Romano in the ‘70s sitcom One Day at a Time, and had the most overly expressive face on TV. Her mouth alone could bend and quiver in a dozen different directions each time she delivered a dramatic line. Rueda’s got some of that.)
But whereas Frank is able to sustain his tension through the climax, Amezcua lets things get out of hand in the final third of his movie. There are several plot threads that are left dangling. These don’t really matter much but just feel a little sloppy. More importantly, he leaves unresolved a number of questions that have been raised during the course of the drama. There are huge questions concerning Sebastian’s future and the aftermath of the kidnapping which simply go unanswered. And most importantly, he commits a serious screenwriting mistake by revealing two of his twists in such rapid succession that they virtually cancel each other out. Plot twists are like bullets, and when you are telling a story, you don’t want to fire your bullets too close to each other. Had he spaced out the reveals, it would have given each moment more impact, and it would have helped address the feeling of abruptness that comes in the final act of the movie.
All that said, for fans of suspense, Septimo is still well worth watching. I would be shocked if there is not an American version of this story being developed as we speak. Maybe by Scott Frank.