Once a major Hollywood player, Paul Schrader seems to have slipped beneath the radar in recent years. Since 1998’s Affliction, which netted James Coburn a Best Supporting Oscar, few of his films (Auto Focus, Dominion) have garnered much attention. If The Walker puts him back on the map, it’ll be chiefly thanks to a powerhouse turn from Woody Harrelson in the title role.
A ‘walker’ is a suave, impeccably dressed male, usually gay, who accompanies the wives of rich, famous and otherwise occupied men to social events. Harrelson plays one such Washington-based adjunct – Carter Page III, frivolous scion of a distinguished political dynasty. Besides his public duties, Page hosts a weekly canasta party for three of his favourite ladies – Natalie (Lauren Bacall), Abigail (Lily Tomlin) and Lynn (Kristin Scott Thomas) – where they gleefully swap scandalous gossip.
Harrelson slips superbly into the role. Foppish rather than camp, Deep-South accent dripping molasses, his performance is shot through with self-disgust (such as when he removes his toupée to reveal advanced male-pattern baldness.) The opening scene, with Page and the three grandes dames relishing their bitchery, promises all the heartless repartee of a Restoration comedy.
Then the plot kicks in. Lynn finds her lover, lobbyist Robbie Kononsberg, gorily murdered, and Page gallantly volunteers to pretend he discovered the body. We’re then plunged into a convoluted mass of blackmail, skullduggery and political intrigue that’s hard to follow and even harder to care about. In the process Schrader’s perennial theme (see American Gigolo, Light Sleeper, et al) of a superficial man tempered in the fire of adversity gets rather lost, and some sideswipes at the current US administration never find their mark. Had Schrader foregone his striving for significance and stuck with the social comedy, he might, paradoxically, have made a harder-hitting movie.