There are several things being chatted and whispered about in the backrooms, parlors and bars of Paul Shrader's Washington but nothing distinctive. The closest to a controversy comes when a few specific so-and-sos ruminate about a possible conspiracy involving the vice president and a dead escort. These events, however, doesn't seem to matter much in the grand scheme of things, and that is both a good thing and a bad thing in Shrader
's latest film, The Walker.
As is explained by a pair of FBI agents, a walker is the title given to men who escort women of great importance (and elderly age) from here to there in the ladies' leisurely days of lunching and shopping. Like other men in his profession, Carter Page III (Woody Harrelson
) has the breeding and education that the career demands and his taste in fashion and furniture is impeccable; he's also a flagrant homosexual. He shuttles away from his one-day-a-week job as a real estate insider to meet up with the likes of Lynn Locklear (Kristin Scott Thomas
), the wife of a senator, and Abigail Delorean (Lily Tomlin
), the wife of Washington's most powerful fixer (Ned Beatty
). Article continues below
When Lynn finds the dead body of the escort she was seeing, the narrative takes the form of a political thriller, but Shrader's filmmaking stays intriguingly supine. The escort has wronged Carter financially, which draws the attention not only of the police and the Feds but of a demonic U.S. attorney fittingly named Mungo Tenant. Page quickly becomes an old-fashioned Washington pariah: Lynn disappears, Abigail becomes unusually tight-lipped and Carter's lover (Moritz Bleibtreu
) gets roughed-up due to some investigating. Page's connections give him enough information to attempt blackmail against Abigail's husband, but this is Washington D.C.: Powerful people don't get their standings by being easily vulnerable.
Where a film like this would usually hinge on the central performance, Schrader puts more emphasis on the look and style of his film, which is admittedly intoxicating. The director and cinematographer Chris Seager pick up every shade of gold that glimmers in the film and every piece of designer fabric has a full and encapsulating feeling to it; the imported tapestries seem to insulate the very corners of the screen. And though Harrelson makes an adequate ol' Southern gentleman with priceless decorum, he has little chance against the glitter and chime of these decadent apartments, houses, and banquet halls.
The problem is, quite simply, that the style of the film makes everything (not only Harrelson) seem superfluous. The rattling whispers of political critique come off as fledgling efforts to give the film an importance above what it is: the last days of luxury for a fashionable, aging gay man. When Carter's lawyer says, "After 9/11, the leash came off," it sounds like commentary for commentary's sake, while the rest of the film, like its protagonist, is wholly indifferent to actual politics and is instead more fascinated with the unavoidable social cobwebs that are spun by the wheelings and dealings of politicians.
The director's pressing concern with these digressions confounds the concentration of the film, and ultimately the film becomes laborious. The cast peps it up at moments with specific nods to Harrelson and a terrific Lauren Bacall
who plays the most perceptive of Carter's ladies. But the richness of Schrader's imagery strangles out the nuances in many of the performances, and when imagery of another sort impedes, such as Carter's boyfriend's artsy photographs of naked men wearing Abu Ghraib garb, the effect is impudent rather than intriguing.
As Film Comment's Rob Nelson pointed out, Page can be seen as Schrader's surrogate; a number of the filmmaker's loner protagonists can be seen that way. As a director, Schrader has crafted a fine film, but as a writer he has tiptoed around the obvious without implicating it; his politics act as a sort of tinsel. When we see Carter finally packing up his apartment with his boyfriend, we know what has gone on, but we certainly don't know the whole story. But we don't feel a pressing need to know it, anyway.