United States, 2007
U.S. Release Date:
R (Sexual Situations, Violence, Profanity)
Theatrical Aspect Ratio:
Woody Harrelson, Kristin Scott Thomas, Lauren Bacall, Lily Tomlin, Ned Beatty, Moritz Bleibtreu, Willem Dafoe
It would be fair to characterize writer/director Paul Schrader as someone who's fascinated by the seamier side of human nature. Some of his best known screenplays, including Taxi Driver and Raging Bull for Martin Scorsese, have plumbed the depths of the tortured soul. Many of his directorial efforts have stayed in the same general arena. For The Walker, a movie that borrows heavily from Schrader's own American Gigolo, the setting is arguably the most corrupt city in the United States: Washington D.C., where friendships exist only as long as they are mutually advantageous. When politics and Schrader's life-view collide, the result is guaranteed not to be uplifting or life-affirming. The Walker confirms our mistrust of politicians, hinting that even cynics may be na´ve.
Carter Page III (Woody Harrelson) is a D.C. gadfly trapped by a reputation of his own making and ghosts of his father and grandfather. He's a gay man who fills a role as the companion of aging, wealthy women. Three of his best clients are the wives of powerful D.C. men: Lynn Locklear (Kristin Scott Thomas), Natalie Van Miter (Lauren Bacall), and Abigail Delorean (Lily Tomlin). He joins them weekly for a game of Canasta, then drives one of them around. Carter is looked upon with disdain by many of the town's movers-and-shakers. They see him as a dilettante, a superficial individual whose witty comments don't reveal anything deeper. Carter also must struggle in the shadow of his late father, someone who is revered in D.C. but who Carter viewed as a crook and a fraud.
When Lynn's lover is murdered, Carter ends up in over his head. He agrees to shield Lynn, who found the body, from the unwanted publicity by claiming to make the discovery himself. The police, fed by information from an insider, suspect that Carter is not being forthcoming and turn up the heat. Suddenly, all of Carter's "friends," except his lover, Emek (Moritz Bleibtreu), vanish and Carter finds himself facing powerful people with secrets to protect and prosecutors who see an opportunity to bring down a Senator (Lynn's husband, Larry, played by Willem Dafoe) by running roughshod over Carter.
The film's ending resolves things too easily and a little sloppily, but it's compelling viewing to get to that point. Schrader paints the atmosphere in D.C. as being worse than rancid. It's downright poisonous. No one and nothing in the city is close to genuine and if you make the mistake of thinking you have a friend, you are only setting yourself up for betrayal. This is the lesson Carter learns, although he comes into the situation better prepared than others. His experiences with his revered father have taught him a thing or two about what it takes to be admired in the city.
Schrader elicits some impressive performances. Woody Harrelson stretches further than he has done before. This is one of his few straight dramatic roles with no edge of humor. Carter is a fully developed individual and we feel his growing sense of claustrophobia as the walls close in and he has to weigh honesty against loyalty. The Walker makes a point of emphasizing that while he may not be an honest man, at least he's an honorable one - perhaps the only one in D.C. Harrelson is supported by a trio of Oscar nominees (Bacall, Scott Thomas, Tomlin), one of whom is a living legend. Willem Dafoe, who has become a Schrader "regular," has a small role, as does Ned Beatty. And Mortiz Bleibtreu, the German actor who played the title character's ill-fated boyfriend in Run Lola Run, is Carter's lover.
This is not Schrader's finest work. The script is not tight, the ending disappoints, and there's a little too much drawn from American Gigolo. But there are some great one-liners, compelling actors, and well-developed characters. Above all, Schrader's perspective of D.C. and politics permeates every frame of the motion picture. With the 2008 election and its associated mudslinging and dirty tricks ramping up, one can't help but reflect how accurate Schrader's perception appears to be. The Walker is as much a social commentary as it is a thriller or character study, and the impression it leaves is not one of light and optimism.