Judge Clark Douglas is surprised that an actor as good as Woody Harrelson has been reduced to playing a piece of equipment designed for elderly people who have trouble getting around.
Everyone loves a good scandal.
"I'm not naïve. I'm superficial."—Carter Page (Woody Harrelson)
Facts of the Case
In director Paul Schrader's latest film, Woody Harrelson (Natural Born Killers) plays Carter Page, who is a "walker" by profession. What is a walker, exactly? Well, the specific definition seems to vary, but in Carter's case, a walker is a man who serves as a companion and confidant for wives of powerful men. He spends time with them, gossips about what it going on around town, and often drives them from place to place. In the case of one senator's wife (Kristin Scott Thomas, Random Hearts), Carter even drives her to meetings with a secret lover. It's a good thing that Carter knows which secrets to spill and which ones to keep, because he may know more about what's going on in Washington than any politician.
Things take a sour turn when the aforementioned secret lover is murdered. The senator's wife is the one who discovers the body, but Carter knows that her reputation will be ruined if she tells anyone. He decides to cover for her and pretends to have discovered the body himself. At first, the plan seems to have worked, but it backfires when Carter becomes a prime suspect in the investigation. All of a sudden, Carter's life and career seem to be spinning down the drain. Can he grab control and make it out of this abyss before he is destroyed?
Paul Schrader has spent his entire career creating in-depth character studies of emotionally troubled men. He has done this as a writer (Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, The Mosquito Coast) and as a writer/director (Affliction, Auto Focus). It will come as no surprise to anyone that his latest film is another addition to Schrader's Gallery of Troubled Males; the real question is whether The Walker is worthy of being mentioned in the same breath as Schrader's better work. Well, maybe. It's certainly a decent movie by ordinary standards, but perhaps not by Schrader's.
For the moment, let's focus on the film's strengths. Any in-depth character study is going to need a good actor at its center, and Woody Harrelson provides an impressive performance as Carter Page. Harrelson's turn here reminded me a little bit of Phillip Seymour Hoffman's work in Capote. Yes, both characters are high-society homosexuals, but there's more to it than that. Both characters use a public façade of flamboyant spice as a cover for their deeply wounded soul. Watch Harrelson in a scene where he is cheerfully meeting and greeting people at a party. One man says, "You know Carter, your father was a good man. He was so proud of you." Carter grins and replies politely, "Yes. Yes, he was." He then turns around, walks away, his face turns into a glare, and he mutters, "F—-- him."
The movie puts together a very impressive cast to play the people in Carter's life. Carter's female clients are played by the likes of Lily Tomlin, Kristin Scott Thomas, and Lauren Bacall, and a couple of their powerful political husbands are played by Willem Dafoe and Ned Beatty. All are quite solid, though only a couple of them are given enough screen time to make a big impression. Lauren Bacall is impressive here as a crusty and foul-mouthed client of Carter's, while Ned Beatty turns in another good performance in an ever-increasing string of roles as corrupt politicians. Still, this is Harrelson's show, and other characters are only permitted to shine if they are doing something involving him.
Schrader asks a lot of question in The Walker, and thankfully doesn't try to provide all of the answers. He presents mysteries and possibilities around every other corner, and we ponder them along with Carter. However, we are more or less limited to Carter's point of view. Schrader wants us to see and feel what he sees and feels, not look down from a high perch and comment on the entire situation in our all-knowing wisdom. It's an engaging mystery that really keeps us wondering not only where the story is going, but how much Schrader is going to permit us to see. It may seem like certain characters or situations are underdeveloped, but keep in mind that we are not intended to see the whole picture, just one perspective.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Unfortunately, this reasonably interesting film also has a generous share of flaws. Pacing is a serious problem; Schrader can't seem to find a comfortable rhythm to work with. The mid-section of the film in particular really drags, seemingly wandering around in circles until it bumps into something interesting. Surprisingly, it's the portrayal of Carter's downfall that seems the least well-executed; several scenes during this portion are a bit sloppy. The film is also a bit too predictable at times, as certain plot developments are needlessly telegraphed.
I also was thoroughly unimpressed with the movie on the purely technical side of things. The wealthy Washington set design is excellent, but the lighting and some of the color choices make everything seem a little murky and off-putting. Perhaps this was an artistic decision, perhaps not; I can only report that this is probably my least-favorite Schrader film in terms of the visual style. Th!nkFilm's transfer is not too impressive either, especially during some of the darker scenes. Th!nkFilm has been involved with some ambitious independent films, but they have disappointed me several times with their DVD transfers. Anne Dudley's plink-plonk score adds very little to the proceedings, though the 5.1 Surround mix is perfectly solid. Finally, the DVD offers very little in the way of extras. We get the theatrical trailer and a three-minute "making-of" featurette that does little more than offer a quick plot description.
The movie will make an engaging rental for fans of Schrader or Harrelson, and I can certainly recommend that fans of serious American cinema give it a look. Unfortunately, despite its numerous qualities, I'm afraid my lingering impression of The Walker is that it is a missed opportunity. Schrader tries to tackle a lot of topics, and most of the results are just underwhelming. Again, I don't want to sound too negative, because the film is not bad. It just could have been considerably better, which makes it even more disappointing than an ordinary film that never had a chance to be anything more than "okay."
Harrelson and Schrader are free to go. Th!nkFilm is guilty of failing to provide a decent DVD package. Court is adjourned.
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Scales of Justice
• "The Making of The Walker"
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