Life in a Graveyard, Death at a Funeral: Scott Frank’s Beguiling Liam Neeson Thriller and the Ensemble-Driven ‘This Is Where I Leave You’
With some movies, you feel like you’ve pre-seen them. The ads and posters and casting tell the same story you watched the previous weekend. So you go in and wait for a sign that this version will, in some way, be different. You look for evidence the director knows what he’s doing. A Walk Among the Tombstones gives you a sense, not too far in, that a sensibility is at work. The strings in the score play well with the xylophone, kicking up an evocative air of mystery. But the surest indication that the movie is operating in a rarefied zone of confidence involves a simple long shot of Liam Neeson trudging up a Fifth Avenue sidewalk in Sunset Park, Brooklyn. The camera takes long, patient drags on Neeson’s carriage and stature. I say it’s simple. But not every Neeson movie cares enough to do it.
For the last six years, Neeson’s become the lethal-weapon choice — a man of the law (one sometimes pushed beyond it) working out trauma through action, much of it either exhilaratingly or exasperatingly stupid. I’m used to seeing his limbs (or a stunt double’s) swinging and flying and chopping, propelling him, laughably, across Eastern European rooftops or flying into wolves. Director Scott Frank tries something that feels new. Frank holds the camera on Neeson moving across the frame. Awe suffuses the image. It’s as if Frank has never seen this actor before and wants to give the strong allure of his physicality its due. Every time Neeson takes a walk, Frank takes him in. The director treats most of this film with similar delicacy, warmth, and attention to the whims of personality. That’s astonishing, given what a grim piece of business the movie reveals itself to be.
Tombstones enters the world of Matthew Scudder, the former NYPD detective and recovering alcoholic from Lawrence Block’s mystery novels, who now works as a private investigator in Brooklyn. Scudder is pensive, graceful, and serene. Nothing ruffles him, yet he isn’t cynically jaded, either. The case he accepts here involves the lady in a drug dealer’s life. The men who kidnapped her demanded the dealer, Kenny (Dan Stevens), pay a lofty ransom. He did, but the kidnappers murdered her anyway and have moved on to other victims. Kenny hires Scudder to find her killers and bring them to him.
Frank adapted the novel and patiently unfurls the story, holding on to curlicues and wrinkles that another, less certain writer might have flattened out or jettisoned altogether: Kenny’s squirrelly junkie brother (Boyd Holbrook); a suspicious-seeming cemetery groundskeeper named James (Ólafur Darri Ólafsson); and the homeless teenage orphan TJ (Brian “Astro” Bradley) who appoints himself Scudder’s sidekick. All three actors are very good, especially Bradley, who spits out his slang with a strong Brooklyn accent. Frank permits the character both street intelligence and wonder. TJ has a way of noticing small but telling rhythms. During one of their first meetings, for instance, he tells Scudder that “Daunte Culpepper” is a name better suited for the world of private investigation than for the NFL.
Indeed, the film is set in 1999, the start of Culpepper’s career and not far from the turn of the century. Frank quietly captures the sense of paranoid doom in the air that year. He adjusts the weight of the atmosphere. It deepens and darkens as it goes. There’s a smart dramatic arc; motifs redouble. New characters keep showing up (like the creeps played by Adam David Thompson and the outrageously excellent David Harbour, who take the film to a new scary-funny place). You expect a thriller from a movie like this, but the further into the case Scudder trudges, the more soundly and unexpectedly Tombstones is able to hit the sweet spot of any good suspense film: the pit of your stomach.
Frank is a longtime screenwriter who’s composed very good scripts (Dead Again, Out of Sight, Get Shorty, Minority Report) and received writing credits on a few severely outlandish ones (Malice, Heaven’s Prisoners, The Interpreter). His other outing as a director, 2007’s cutthroat thriller The Lookout, confirmed the kind of grubby, scuzzy, criminal landscape Frank prefers. Here, what I found myself responding to, though, was the way the lurid story and the film’s style work together to draw you in.
There’s so much insinuation in Mihai Malaimare Jr.’s cinematography. It peers across the way from one apartment into another. The smudging and smearing of the camera frame feels like an act of past violence. There’s a tracking shot toward the side-view mirror of a van as it’s pulling away that’s one of the images of the year. The camera can’t get enough not only of Neeson’s face, but also of the hard contours of Bradley’s. It’s searching these men for notes of good and evil. The sense of place is also strong in this movie. If you don’t always know where you are in this film block to block, you know, at least, that its streets and neighborhoods are somewhere real.
There’s a kind of director who tries to capture a particular feeling of 1970s Hollywood cinema — the direness, the heaviness, the haywire quality of some people, the moral jaundice, the realism. David Fincher got eerily close in Zodiac. Denis Villeneuve went for it in last year’s Prisoners and short-circuited. James Gray has been chasing that feeling his entire career, often coming up Wile E. Coyote short.
The director Hal Ashby’s last film was 1986’s 8 Million Ways to Die, a Matthew Scudder mystery with a mustached Jeff Bridges, a hot, young Andy Garcia, Rosanna Arquette, and a sleek turn from the city of Los Angeles. It also wasn’t going for too much, and now feels like something from the Magnum, P.I./Miami Vice era, something whose poster would wind up on a hipster’s T-shirt. There’s similar casual seriousness in Frank’s approach. It’s formal, but it isn’t mannered. There’s jazz in his structure, room to make you laugh and jump. He’s telling this story in a way that meets up with modest detective pictures like The Drowning Pool, instead of going for the mood of the era’s iconic political chillers. Other movies get the distinction, too, like Baltasar Kormákur’s heist thriller with Mark Wahlberg, Contraband.
Frank doesn’t risk a whole movie on nostalgia. A Walk Among the Tombstones manages to be innocent of its peers and, simultaneously, in communication with them. It’s the difference between aping a classic and making something classical. This is what I want at the movies: a surprise. Lately, with this incarnation of Neeson, you really felt as if you’d seen him before. But Frank believes in Neeson’s size and experience. When a weirdo considers threatening him with a knife, Neeson doesn’t need an action sequence to disarm him, just some calm verbal wit.
This year I’ve seen Neeson in four movies, including the ludicrous and ludicrously fun airplane thriller, Non-Stop. Even in an intellectual fiasco like Third Person, he finds another way to convey vulnerable, masculine authority. He was remote in Taken, Unknown, and The Grey, as if he were hiding behind convoluted plot and chases and beatdowns. There’s some human variety to these performances now. Neeson this year is the closest anyone’s come to the bygone Western star Randolph Scott, except that Neeson can act. A Walk Among the Tombstones doesn’t overdo it, though. His laid-back toughness puts the movie and its director in territory familiar to Frank. They’re both out of sight.
It’s difficult to see the members of the biological family in This Is Where I Leave You — the Altmans — seated side by side and not ask what drug biology was doing. How does Jane Fonda produce Tina Fey, Corey Stoll, Jason Bateman, and Adam Driver? Driver has a thickness and bigness that doesn’t correspond to the petiteness of Fey and Fonda. But the physical incongruity underscores how little these five have to do with each other as performers. The movie is about how disconnected the Altmans are, but you’d still like to sense some passing or grudging affection among them all. We don’t meet Mr. Altman. He’s just died, and his funeral is the excuse for good actors to scream and fight and undermine each other the way siblings do in ensemble movies that think like bad television.
Each Altman child returns to the family’s well-appointed Hudson Valley–ish home with a weekend bag of woe. Judd (Bateman) comes home early from work and finds his wife (Abigail Spencer) in bed with his shock-jock boss (Dax Shepard). He arrives for the funeral having told only his sister Wendy (Fey) that he’s left the marriage. He tells everyone else his wife is laid up. Mom (Fonda) can’t know about the estrangement only because it gives the movie an excuse to turn the news into a would-be comic outburst in front of scores of people.
Wendy is married to the biztronic jerk (Aaron Lazar) who spends all of his scenes doing deals instead of offering condolences and helping out with their two small children, one of whom is fond of placing his plastic toilet on the floor and doing his business. Paul (Stoll) and his wife, Alice (Kathryn Hahn), are on a baby-making sex schedule, which has turned them both brittle. Phillip (Driver) comes up with yet another allegedly inappropriate woman. This time it’s Tracy (Connie Britton), his tony shrink. As it happens, Fonda’s character, Hillary, is a psychologist, too, the celebrity kind whose famous guide to raising children continues to garner her children’s resentment.
It pains me to go on. But this information is merely stage-setting for the nonsense that follows. Hillary claims her husband’s dying wish was that the family sit shivah for him, though the Altmans aren’t even culturally Jewish. The kids throw up their arms at having to spend a week under one roof. That happens to be plenty of time for Wendy to go moony over the brain-injured ex, Horry (Timothy Olyphant), across the street; for Paul and Phillip to fight about who gets to run their dad’s sports store, the very place Judd runs into a girl (Rose Byrne) he liked in high school; for Alice, who’s desperate for a baby, to come on to Judd, hoping he’ll knock her up. (They, too, used to date.) She doesn’t seem to care that he’s sleeping in the basement on a sofa bed that can’t fold out completely or that, given the casting, she’ll have a baby with a brother-in-law who looks nothing like her husband. The brothers sneak into a classroom and get high during their father’s synagogue service. They harass the “hip rabbi” (Ben Schwartz) they grew up with. Phillip drives Tracy’s sports car to chase an old fling. In funeral comedies, fucking appears to be a form of mourning.
This Is Where I Leave You amounts to everything I can’t stand about certain American movies. It gathers too many good, smart actors and gives most of them almost nothing interesting to play. I don’t want to see Fey as guilty, blubbering bigmouth. That’s a character description that plays to none of her strengths. The film prizes smugness over sincerity. It thinks that giving Fonda’s shrink a big brain and personality means it can laugh at her giving herself a bigger chest, and that every time she bends over, Bateman can be appalled. It’s not seriousness this movie lacks. It’s common sense. These are well-off people. If there’s no room in Hillary’s house for Judd, he could stay in a hotel or across the street with Horry, Horry’s mother (Debra Monk), and the embarrassing plot-surprise who lives there. Either way, sleeping on a bed that won’t lie flat doesn’t make sense: It’s also a couch.
The incredibility of small details keeps you at a remove in a movie like this. I don’t believe these actors as siblings or husbands and wives and exes. But I also don’t believe there’s nowhere else for Judd to sleep. There’s a lack of curiosity at work here, too. What sparks fly or bonds form or tensions mount when a son brings home a psychologist girlfriend to his psychologist mother? There’s no tension, no drama, no reason for any of what happens here. Hillary’s children are a mess, and she doesn’t seem to care. Neither does the movie.
This is one of those Sundance comedies about a family that still believes there is novel laughter to be had in generic dysfunction. There’s a wealth of psychological material the movie isn’t smart enough to explore. (Jonathan Tropper adapted his own novel, which, in this case, is as ill-advised as performing one’s own autopsy.) Director Shawn Levy also gave us Just Married, Cheaper by the Dozen, the Night at the Museum movies, and Date Night. For him, there’s no distinction between a family movie and an adult movie about families. They’re all just a kid on his plastic potty taking a dump.