Movies don't need villains even though the thriller genre, as seen in A Walk Among the Tombstones, makes it seem like they do. People who enjoy thrillers are so accustomed to the cat-and-mouse storytelling dynamic that they think the hero/villain dichotomy is unavoidable. It should have been avoided in A Walk Among the Tombstones, in which a pair of gay serial killers are hunted down by Liam Neeson playing Matthew Scudder, an ex-cop turned private investigator.
Ray and Albert (portrayed by David Harbour and Adam David Thompson) are not just the bad guys; they're porn-corrupted boyfriends--evildoers and gynophobic creeps who abduct women then perform mutilations on them before killing them. This grotesque plot contrivance goes so far from what makes private detective fiction interesting (the classical investigation into despoiled human nature) that it seems to be working out something peculiar: in fact, some dubious obsession with queerness. It takes the eccentricity of diverse ethnic and sexual types in the urban jungle and uses them cynically--first in Lawrence Block's 1992 crime thriller novel and now in director Scott Frank's own kind of Hollywood film noir pornography.
The gay villains of A Walk Among the Tombstones are an effete duo who dress in Bobbsey Twin uniformity. (Evoking hospital orderlies as well as morgue attendants, their clinical use of Cronenbergian surgical instruments carries AIDS panic.) Slim, blond types (one bland, the other goateed), they recall the gay Nazi-like killers in Michael Haneke's American remake of his sadistic art-movie Funny Games. Neesom's Scudder even refers to Ray and Albert as a "Bert and Ernie act." These perverse goblins represent the return of the socially repressed.
Adam David Thompson (left) and David Harbour play gay serial killers in 'A Walk Among the Tombstones'
This was probably inevitable. Given the legal and cultural advances pertaining to gay rights and marriage equality, it was likely that some form of backlash would erupt. Sexual backlash was the real point of Steve McQueen's so-called "sex addiction" film Shame where a joint-swinging Michael Fassbender proved his decadence by visiting a gay sex club--referenced here in a similarly red-tinted all-male porn shop sequence where Ray and Albert attempt to lure a sad-sack henchman into a threesome. Steve McQueen has created a new genre: Hate Noir.
The only surprise is that this most primitive kind of homophobia now occurs in the context of a big budget movie geared to mainstream tastes--such as pressing the usual race/feminist buttons same as formulaic TV shows. It's offensive that the filmmakers' idea of villainy is so generic that the killers can easily be viewed as homophobic targets. The haunted title of A Walk Among the Tombstones suggests that one's bigoted reflexes are common, lying just beneath the surface.
Frank and Block are obviously ripping-off the heinous perversity of the Jame Gumb character in Jonathan Demme's 1991 The Silence of the Lambs (which revived the specter of the sexually queer but pathetic monster). But that film's concept of social and sexual loners was problematic--and way too subtle (which may have inspired Demme to immediately follow up with the gay-affirming protest film Philadelphia). Demme's films are proof that the best movies--and real works of art--don't simplify life to heroes and villains. That's the problem with A Walk Among the Tombstones: Ray and Albert are gay bogeymen who can be hissed and booed without thinking.