Kristin Scott Thomas
Mary Beth Hurt
Writer-director Paul Schrader has written some outstanding screenplays, especially the four he has done for Martin Scorsese (including Taxi Driver and Raging Bull), but arguably he has made less of an impact in his inconsistent career as a director over the last thirty years. His biggest commercial hit was 1980′s American Gigolo (which made Richard Gere a star), while his best film may be the artistically daring Mishima (1985).
The Walker, the 16th film Schrader has directed, is a welcome addition to the oeuvre of this Hollywood auteur. Like so many of his previous movies, it explores the troubled male psyche in the form of a self-destructive outsider who reassesses the world he lives in and his own part in it. Part political thriller, part psychological drama, it exudes class.
Set against the backdrop of Machiavellian Washington politics, the story focuses on Carter Page III (Woody Harrelson), a gay ‘walker’ who escorts wives of the rich and powerful to society events because their husbands are too busy. Sexually ‘safe’ and immaculately groomed, Carter is valued for his impeccable manners but also as a source of gossip since he knows what everyone is doing in town.
In this exclusive world of first nights at the opera and lavish dinner parties, Carter plays canasta each Wednesday at a smart hotel with three high-society women: Lynn (Kristin Scott Thomas), wife of a liberal senator (Willem Dafoe); Abby (Lily Tomlin), married to influential political fixer Jack Delorean (Ned Beatty); and the wealthy widow Natalie (Lauren Bacall).
However, the sleaze underlying the luxury is revealed after Lynn discovers her lover has been murdered. Carter agrees to tell the police that he found the corpse in order to save Lynn and her husband from scandal, but as his reputation becomes publicly tarnished in the police investigation, his so-called friends and business associates start to desert him.
With the help of his photojournalist boyfriend Emek (Mortiz Bleibtreu), Carter tracks down who is responsible for the murder, exposing a sordid political cover-up of corruption and blackmail in the corridors of power. As he is caught up in this web of Washington intrigue, where his livelihood and even his life are threatened, he has to make crucial decisions about his own welfare, loyalty to friends and the public interest.
Schrader has produced a nicely understated suspense drama which avoids the temptation to descend into melodrama, so while there is an atmosphere of danger and menace the number of fights and chases are kept to a minimum.
It’s interesting to compare The Walker with American Gigolo, which likewise featured a paid male escort for rich older women, who becomes disillusioned with this way of life after a murder raises questions of client confidentiality and political corruption. Of course, Carter doesn’t have sex with his clients, and this is Washington not LA. But more importantly, The Walker is a much more mature movie with a personal journey of self-discovery at its heart.
An extra layer is provided by Carter’s family history. He lives in the shadow of his ‘aristocratic’ Virginian pedigree: his grandfather was a rich tobacco plantation owner, while his father was a much-admired senator who helped to expose Nixon’s part in the Watergate scandal (though Carter knows his integrity was a front). Leading the superficial if lucrative lifestyle he does, Carter is regarded as the ‘black sheep’ of the family, but we see him discovering his own integrity as he realises the shallowness and hypocrisy of the circles he moves in.
The versatile Harrelson excels as Carter, giving a superbly nuanced performance, entertaining but not too camp, gaining our sympathy without sentimentality. There is something subtly moving about the way he retains his dignity and dry sense of humour despite the treachery of those around him, as for once in his life he chooses discretion over revelation, albeit at great personal cost.
Scott Thomas also gives a rounded portrait of Lynn, expressing both her vulnerability and manipulativeness, while Lily Tomlin keeps us guessing about how much Abby knows of her husband’s shady dealings and the wonderful Lauren Bacall makes an immediate impact as the cynical Natalie, hardened over the years by her decision to marry for money rather than love.
The Walker begins with Carter playing cards with the women apparently one of their inner circle but this sense of belonging is shown to be an illusion during the course of the movie, as Carter is quickly dropped when he is seen to be a liability, and the final image is of the door of the hotel card room closing on him.