Make that two thumbs up.

Don't Mess With Liam Neeson

Megan McArdle is a Bloomberg View columnist. She wrote for the Daily Beast, Newsweek, the Atlantic and the Economist and founded the blog Asymmetrical Information. She is the author of "“The Up Side of Down: Why Failing Well Is the Key to Success.”
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I've been complaining about movies around here. Boring, same, same, boring. Well, I saw a movie I liked this weekend, so I thought it only fair to mention that fact.

The movie in question was "A Walk Among the Tombstones," based upon the Lawrence Block novel and starring Liam Neeson. Full disclosure: I like Lawrence Block novels. And I'm pretty sure that I could happily watch Liam Neeson watch paint dry for two hours. So you've been warned.

That said, I liked everything about this movie. The script was good. Liam Neeson was good, with much better dialogue than he's gotten in many of his recent pictures. There were no pointless fight and chase scenes; violence there was, but it was, as the censors say, integral to the plot.

My favorite thing about the movie was how it highlighted the ordinariness of terrible crime without making the ordinary squalid. But my second favorite thing was that it actually kept me engaged with the plot, rather than gratuitous violence. The pacing was methodical, and never lost my interest once, unlike "fast-paced" but pointless parades of gunshots and explosions. The cinematography ranged from very good to stunning.

The one complaint I've heard that I sort of agreed with is that the villains aren't very interesting. Unlike the complainers, however, I thought that this was a solid directorial choice. Movies tend to make criminals, and crime, far more interesting than they actually are. From Bill James, in "Popular Crime":

Not only are serial murderers in fiction vastly more organized than serial murderers in real life, but there is almost no overlap between the groups. One can almost say accurately that every serial murderer in fiction is more organized than any serial murderer in real life.

I remember a 1970s made-for-TV movie about a serial killer; somebody is strangling women, and the police are trying to figure out who. They look for what the women have in common, and eventually they find it: they all had the same doctor when they were born, 20 years ago. They go after the doctor, only it turns out it isn't the doctor, it's the doctor's wife. She gave birth to a baby girl who was born dead about that time, strangled on the umbilical cord, and she is psychotically re-enacting this tragedy with her murders.

It's too rational, too organized. Real serial murderers don't have a clearly identifiable reason for their crimes. In "The Silence of the Lambs" Thomas Harris creates a serial murderer, Hannibal Lecter, who is 50 times more organized, more in control of his actions, than any real-life serial murderer. But even Harris' backup serial murderer, Buffalo Bill Gumb, kills women for an easily identifiable reason: he wants their skin. Sexually confused, he is trying to make a "woman suit" for himself by trapping large girls, starving them so their skin is loose, then killing them and using their skin to make a suit in which he can be a woman. It's too logical, too organized. Real serial murderers aren't that organized.

The movie captured that: It's a serial killer story about killers who kill because they like to, which is as much motive as psychological science seems to have actually come up with in any of these cases. The detective is much more interesting than the killers, as he should be. It was, in short, a good adult detective story, for people who do not need strobe-light editing to convince them that they are having a good time. For that reason, I am sure it will not do nearly as well as the latest chase scene fantasia. But since I've been complaining about Hollywood lately, I thought I should mention that it produced something I really like.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

To contact the author on this story:
Megan McArdle at mmcardle3@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor on this story:
James Gibney at jgibney5@bloomberg.net