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Film / A Walk Among the Tombstones

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"I stopped drinking that day. It just wasn't as fun after that."
Matthew Scudder

2014 movie based on the book of the same name by Lawrence Block. Directed by Scott Frank. Set in 1999, the film follows a retired cop turned private investigator Matthew Scudder being dragged into a kidnapping/murder case. As the body count goes up, he must use unreliable witnesses and gut intuition to try to catch the murderers. Starring Liam Neeson. It contains a mix of suspense, thriller and neo-noir elements.


A Walk Among the Tombstones contains examples of:

  • The '90s: The film is set right at the end of the decade in 1999.
  • Accidental Child-Killer Backstory: Matthew Scudder quit his job as a cop and gave up alcohol because a stray shot from his gun during a shootout killed a little girl.
  • Adapted Out: The process of Matt's investigation is changed significantly from the novel, resulting in the removal of several major characters, particularly Elaine, Pam Cassidy, and the Kongs.
  • A-Team Firing: Amusingly lampshaded when junkie Peter has to cover Scudder with a rifle, as the Russian gangster's mook with a rifle is nearsighted and doesn't think he could aim well at night, whereas Peter has army experience.
  • The Artful Dodger: TJ is intelligent, Street Smart, and knows how to take care of himself although he's no thief and genuinely wants to make something of himself. He also does everything he can to avoid being picked up by the state and put into foster care. Naturally he wants to become a private investigator after meeting Matthew.
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  • Badass and Child Duo: Matthew and TJ, although TJ is a Street Smart and computer-literate teenager, and helps Matthew in his investigation.
  • Batman Gambit: Albert & Ray's plan involves kidnapping the loved ones of drug dealers, as they wouldn't go to the police. However, they didn't count on Kenny instead hiring Matthew.
  • Big Bad Duumvirate: Albert and Ray.
  • Black-and-Gray Morality: A number of the people Matthew either helps or is helped by in the film are involved in the drug trade, either as dealers, traffickers, or users and Matt himself is a former dirty cop who isn't afraid to intimidate people to get what he needs. None of them are even close to being as bad as Albert or Ray though who kidnap, rape and brutally torture and murder people for sheer pleasure.
  • Black Comedy: Scudder tells Ray the reason he's so calm is because he's being covered by a high-powered rifle. Gilligan Cut to Peter almost dropping said rifle as he tries to hold it on target.
  • Boom, Headshot!: Albert's death.
  • Bread, Eggs, Milk, Squick: After Albert murders Ray, he's captured by Matthew and tells him he was going to sit down to a meal before disposing of Ray's body.
  • Bulletproof Vest: Scudder shoots Ray in the chest the moment his partner informs him the bills are counterfeit. Turns out he's wearing a vest, which he reveals by pulling up his shirt, but not taking off the vest as per usual for this trope. Scudder then shoots Ray in the unprotected side as he's getting into the van to drive off.
  • Cain and Abel: After Ray is shot, he begs Albert to treat his wounds. Albert simply kills him instead.
  • Cacophony Cover Up: Thunder is used to obscure the sound of breaking glass when Kenny is breaking into the killers house.
  • Close-Call Haircut: During the bar shootout, the drunken Scudder drops his gun on drawing it, bends down to pick it off the floor and a shotgun blast rips through the partition where his head was a moment before. He then gets a couple of bullets through his Badass Longcoat.
  • Compromising Call: Subverted. After the cemetery shootout, Scudder realises his Tagalong Kid is missing and calls his mobile, not realising TJ is hiding in the back of the serial killers' van. Fortunately they've arrived at their destination by the time the call is made; one hears the ringtone, but dismisses it as coming from a nearby house.
  • Counterfeit Cash: As the latest victim doesn't have the million dollar ransom, they make up the amount with this. The notes appear good enough to fool the kidnappers, until printer's ink gets on Albert's hand.
  • Cruel and Unusual Death: What Ray and Albert do to their victims.
  • Curse Cut Short: TJ's is cut off by Dramatic Thunder.
  • Dark and Troubled Past: Matthew's past is not revealed until midway through the film but it is significant in regards to his retirement and free time.
  • Deathbed Confession: Peter confesses that he was in love with his brother's wife Cassie, but dies before completing the confession, so Kenny assumes his estranged brother was making a Dying Declaration Of Brotherly Love.
  • Death by Adaptation: Kenan Khoury survives in the book, but Kenny Kristo is killed in the movie.
  • Death by Irony: After being shot, Ray asks his brother Albert to treat his wounds. Albert (like Ray) is a sociopathic serial killer with a complete Lack of Empathy who (also like Ray) maintains the philosophy that Murder Is the Best Solution.
  • Death of a Child: The little girl who was accidentally killed in Scudder's shootout with the robbers at the bar. It's the reason he quit being a cop and gave up drinking.
  • Dirty Cop: Kenny asks Scudder if he resigned from the force because he didn't like the corruption. Scudder replies that it would have been hard to support his family without being corrupt.
  • Dirty Coward: Ray is a sadistic monster, but freaks out and panics after he is shot near the end of the movie. He cries to Albert that he has never been wounded before.
  • Disability Immunity: TJ has sickle-cell anemia. His mother always told him it makes him special because he is immune to malaria.
  • Disposable Woman: All of Ray and Albert's victims. Their main purpose in the plot is to be killed to provide the central mystery and motivate the male characters to solve the murders. The film does treat them as sympathetic and emphasizes how terrifying and horrific their deaths must've been, but they're still more important to the plot dead than alive.
  • Disposing of a Body: Ray and Albert chop their victims into pieces to dispose of in small bags. They start the process while the victim is still alive.
  • Don't You Dare Pity Me!: On hearing each others Dark and Troubled Past stories, both TJ and Scudder make a point of saying they're not interested in the other's pity, followed by the listener promptly saying they're not sorry for them at all.
  • Double-Meaning Title: The walk among the tombstones refers to Scudder investigating the previous victims to Connect the Deaths, and also the literal climactic event that takes place in a cemetery (also an earlier scene had Scudder walking past several graves).
  • The Dragon: Ray to Albert.
  • Driven to Suicide / Better to Die than Be Killed: Jonas. He was Ray & Albert's accomplice. Once Scudder questions him and he tells Scudder what happened, he's worried they'll find out and do the same to him as they did to their victims.
  • Establishing Character Moment: TJ's introduction. His stern demeanor, naivety, and ingenuity at the beginning of the investigation set up his actions later.
  • Even Evil Has Standards: Played straight with Jonas. Averted with Ray and Albert, who are utterly sadistic and remorseless.
  • Eye Scream: Extremely important to Matthew's backstory.
  • Film Noir: The film certainly has this vibe. Scudder and T.J. even discuss Sam Spade and Philip Marlowe.
  • Fingore: Ray and Albert start the vivisection process on their last victim by removing a couple of fingers before they're forced by Matthew to return her alive.
  • Gangsta Style: When TJ shows Scudder the gun he found, Scudder asks him to hold it like he's going to use it. TJ does it in typical sideways-tilted gangsta style, which lets Scudder know that, streetwise and intelligent though TJ might be, he clearly is not cut out for violence.
  • Godzilla Threshold: Scudder is a Guile Hero, preferring to talk it out with possible criminals and not fighting it out. When he has to meet face-to-face however, he gets his pistol and revolver.
  • Grievous Bottley Harm: Kenny hits Albert with a bottle he's drinking from. Albert is knocked out temporarily and is noticeably impaired when fighting Scudder afterwards. However he's still active enough to escape his bonds.
  • Groin Attack: In the climax, Matthew finally subdues Albert with a taser directly to the testicles.
  • Guile Hero: Scudder is clearly capable in hand-to-hand combat but does most his of work by outwitting the bad guys, understanding how they think to get a psychological edge, etc, not by beating the crap out of them.
  • Half-Truth: Scudder always gives the same spiel during his Alcoholic Anonymous class over how he resigned and gave up alcohol after killing three criminals in a shootout. It's only to TJ that he confesses that one of his shots killed a young girl.
  • Hidden Depths: TJ has an assortment of skills combined with, albeit reckless, bravery.
  • Historical In-Joke: The Y2K predictions of apocalypse and society breaking down.
  • Incredibly Obvious Tail: Lampshaded — it's difficult to do with only one person.
  • Improbable Infant Survival: The girl taken hostage is alive, but not entirely unharmed.
  • Instant Death Bullet: The little girl that was accidentally hit with a bullet. Also, Albert goes out this way.
  • Jerk with a Heart of Gold: Jonas. He's clearly not a good person but he's shocked at how far his accomplices took things.
  • Kick the Dog: Several times at the hands of the kidnappers.
  • Killer Cop: It appears the killers are DEA agents as they have DEA files on their victims, but Scudder says they're too crazy and must have worked as informants or civilian employees of the Agency. Later he discovers one of their victims was an undercover DEA agent who had the files on her.
  • Killed Mid-Sentence: In the end, Matthew has Albert subdued on the floor with a gun pointed at his head. Albert manages to mumble "Y'know, I just wanted to-" before Matthew shoots him dead.
  • Lack of Empathy: Ray and Albert's chilling and uncaring mannerisms are made clear almost immediately.
  • Little Dead Riding Hood: The killers decide to give up on their next target after finding out his wife is in a coma, when their 14-year-old daughter steps out to walk the dog, the wind blowing the hood of her red coat off her face. She actually survives, though not without losing a finger...
  • Little Stowaway: Scudder has an Oh, Crap! moment when he realises TJ has hidden himself in the killers' van.
  • Magic Bullets: Averted, though we don't find out until halfway through the movie.
  • Missing White Woman Syndrome: Inverted actually. The white women are already dead when the story starts and, while their loved ones grieve for them, more emphasis and tension is drawn from a young Russian girl being abducted and the third act is about trying to save her.
  • My Greatest Failure: The reason why Scudder quit drinking and the New York police. The shootout he has on the street didn't end where we first saw it end and it turns out that a stray bullet from Scudder killed a young girl. Couple that with getting a commendation for his actions in stopping three criminals and that his aim was shown to be shaky -possibly due to all his drinking- and he swears off both being a policeman and alcohol in general.
  • My God, What Have I Done?: Peter after being told his actions inadvertently led to Carrie being targeted by the killers. He gave up his brother to a DEA investigator who was later targeted by the killers. They seized her files as well, which included information on his brother and his wife.
  • The Namesake: Matthew learns that one of the victims was laid down in a graveyard, so goes to the cemetery and takes a walk among the tombstones.
  • Nerves of Steel: When Ray notes that Scudder is unusually calm during the hostage exchange, Scudder implies that he's a Death Seeker. Regarding the opening shootout (in which Scudder shoots three criminals despite nearly getting killed by several near misses), he states that he was drunk, but the audience has plenty of evidence that he's genuinely courageous, especially in contrast to Ray's behaviour after he gets shot.
  • Nightmare Fetishist: Ray and Albert have a fetish for murdering young women, specifically killing them by removing body parts while they're alive.
  • Nothing Up My Sleeve: Scudder hides a revolver up his sleeve during the hostage exchange.
  • Parental Abandonment: TJ's mother left him in a hospital one day when he got sick and never came back for him. He figures that she expected he'd be placed with a loving family, and he also implies that she had a screw loose.
  • The Perfect Crime: Ray and Albert think they have found the perfect way to kidnap, ransom and murder young women to satisfy their urges—they choose the wives, girlfriends and daughters of drug dealers who won't go to the police for help. They just didn't expect to be tracked down by a guy like Scudder.
  • Period Piece: Set in 1999, with tons of Y2K-related images everywhere. Cellular phones are a complete non-entity too, and Scudder is shown to have no grasp of even 90s-era computers.
  • Pet the Dog: Ray actually spares Lucia's bedridden mother during the abduction, even taking the time to administer her eye drops.
  • Punk in the Trunk: Kenny is told his wife Cassie is in the trunk of an abandoned derelict car. He's puzzled to find what appears to be a trunk full of heroin, until he cuts open a package and blood pours out.
  • Race Lift: In the book Kenan Khoury and his brother Peter are of Lebanese descent, and his wife, Francine, is Pakistani. In the movie Peter, Kenny, and Carrie are all white.
  • Razor Floss: The killers cut off their victim's breasts with a loop of razor wire. During the final confrontation, Albert uses this as a garrotte to kill Ray and Kenny, and nearly kills Scudder except the muzzle of his pistol gets caught in the loop, preventing the wire from cutting through Scudder's throat.
  • Reckless Gun Usage:
    • Defied by Matthew. TJ steals a pistol because he thinks he'll need it if he is going to become a private investigator. Matthew shows him how to remove and replace the magazine, remove the safety catch and cock the gun, then tells TJ to put the gun to his head and blow his brains out because he says carrying a gun in the first place is the best way to get killed by one and that it will eventually happen to him if he keeps it.
    • Played straight when Matthew gets into a running gunfight with three gangbangers despite the fact that he was drinking in a bar.
  • Save the Villain: Averted; Scudder does give Kenny the option of calling the police, as there's enough hard evidence to put the killers in jail for several life sentences, but makes it clear it's up to him. When Kenny makes it clear he's going to take revenge, Scudder takes TJ and leaves. However he changes his mind and goes back, which is just as well, as Albert has escaped his bonds. After a desperate struggle, Scudder shoots Albert in the head without trying to take him prisoner.
  • Sadist: Ray and Albert are sexually excited by torturing and vivisecting their victims to death.
  • Schmuck Bait: Scudder realises he's being followed, and ducks through a door with a small glass window, ready to attack. Instead the man just peers through the window and leaves. So Scudder raps on the window to get his attention; when he peers through it again, Scudder punches him through the window.
  • Serial Killer: Ray and Albert. They get away with it by targeting the wives, girlfriends and daughters of drug dealers, knowing that they will never be pursued by the police.
  • Something Only They Would Say: Scudder demands the name of the girl's dog. In case the killers already know that from their surveillance of her, he also demands the name of her previous dog.
  • Soundtrack Dissonance: The Slow Motion Male Gaze view of the fourteen-year-old Lucia as she walks past the killers to the sound of "Atlantis" by Donovan.
  • So Much for Stealth: After the cemetery shootout, Scudder and Kenny find TJ has vanished. They decide to call his mobile, not realising he's hiding in the back of the killer's van. Fortunately when the call is made, the killers are out of the van in the pouring rain. Albert actually hears the ringtone, but dismisses it. Ray actually spots TJ peaking through the window, but it only serves as a fatal distraction just before Albert kills him.
  • Spies In a Van: Scudder realises he's being followed by a white van, and thinks the killers are on to him. It turns out to be actual DEA agents, wanting to know why he's hanging out with their surveillance targets.
  • Staircase Tumble: Scudder slips in blood in the killer's Creepy Basement and falls down the stairs.
  • Static Stun Gun: Used to kidnap Lucia and immobilise her dog. Scudder later uses it to save his own life.
  • Suddenly Speaking: Albert goes the duration of the movie without speaking once, but finally says a few lines after he kills Ray. Ironically, Albert himself is Killed Mid-Sentence.
  • The Reveal: Matthew's tale of his bad day and resorting to alcoholism is told in bits and pieces to the audience, but near the end of the movie he tells TJ everything. During a gunfight, Matthew's shooting caused a stray bullet to hit a 7-year-old straight in the eye, instantly killing her.
  • Trailers Always Lie: Most of the trailers for this film imply it's an action thriller in the same vein as Taken, whereas it's actually more of a gritty, slow-burn neo-noir Psychological Thriller with very little action until the climax.
  • Trailers Always Spoil: The trailer contains the shot of Jonas leaping off the roof, which eliminates one of the Red Herrings.
  • Tropaholics Anonymous: Matthew goes to Alcoholics Anonymous and even outlines the twelve step program which as in reality involves submitting oneself to a higher power, usually God.
  • Villains Out Shopping: One scene shows Albert and Ray (the latter without pants) enjoying a lazy morning, making and eating a big breakfast.
  • "What Now?" Ending: In a sense. The last scene of the film is Scudder sitting in his apartment, TJ asleep on his couch. Scudder looks at one of TJ's drawings and we're then shown the skyline - as if the characters' situations are asking "well, now what?"
  • White Shirt of Death: The girl Scudder accidentally killed has the classic blood on a white blouse.
  • World Half Empty: Subverted with all the apocalyptic Y2K predictions. The audience knows that things didn't turn out too badly after all, and they don't in Scudder's latest case.
  • Would Harm A Child: Ray and Albert's latest victim is a 14-year-old girl.
  • Would Hit a Girl: All of Ray and Albert's victims are women, though they do a lot more than hit them...
  • Your Approval Fills Me with Shame: Scudder was actually decorated for the bar shootout. He resigned anyway.
  • You Said You Would Let Them Go: Kenny pays $400,000 for the return of his wife, but they've already killed her. They return her in pieces just to taunt him. Scudder uses this breach of faith to get the kidnapped girl back, as he won't make the exchange without proof she's alive.

...and to practice these principles in all our affairs.